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Unconventional Elections in America

Did you know that you may have to vote again in your primary if no candidate gets more than half the votes? If not, you may want to find out if this applies to you.

For example, there’s been such a close race for Jeff Sessions’ vacant Senate seat in Alabama that the Republican primary in August did not determine a winner. A primary runoff between the top two Republican candidates, Roy Moore and Luther Strange, is scheduled for September 26.

In over 115 races that Vote Smart has already tracked in 2017, we have encountered other unconventional election practices that voters may not be aware of. Earlier this month, Mississippi held a nonpartisan primary election for its State House Dist. 102 seat that will be determined by a runoff election in October.

Most Americans participate in a first-past-the-post system where winners in primaries and general elections are decided by a “plurality”—the candidate with the most votes wins. Several cities and states across the nation, however, have adopted alternative election methods. Read on for a brief explanation of the unique election practices that are currently used at the state and federal levels.

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Runoff Elections

Runoff elections are held when no candidate wins the simple majority (or more than half) of the votes. The National Conference of State Legislatures lists 10 states that use primary runoff elections—each with their own conditions for running them.


  • Condition(s): No candidate wins a simple majority.

  • Runoff Date: Tuesday of ninth week after the primary.


  • Condition(s): No candidate wins a simple majority.

  • Runoff Date: Three weeks after the primary.


  • Condition(s): No candidate wins a simple majority.

  • Runoff Date: Nine weeks after the primary.


  • Condition(s): No candidate wins a simple majority.

  • Runoff Date: Three weeks after the primary.

North Carolina

  • Condition(s): No candidate wins more than 40% and only if the runner-up calls for a runoff.

  • Runoff Date: Seven weeks after the primary.


  • Condition(s): No candidate wins a simple majority.

  • Runoff Date: Held in August.

South Carolina

  • Condition(s): No candidate wins a simple majority.

  • Runoff Date: Two weeks after the primary.

South Dakota

  • Condition(s): No candidate gets more than a 35% majority for the offices of U.S. Senator, U.S. Representative, or Governor.

  • Runoff Date: Three weeks after the primary.


  • Condition(s): No candidate wins a simple majority.

  • Runoff Date: Six weeks after the primary.


  • Condition(s): Primary results in a tie.

  • Runoff Date: Two to three weeks after the primary.

Runoff general elections are most common in states that use a nonpartisan primary election method. Just as with a primary runoff, if no candidate in the nonpartisan election receives more than half of the votes, then the top two candidates move on to the runoff.

Need to refresh your civics knowledge? Check out our Government 101 resources!

Nonpartisan Primary Elections

A nonpartisan primary election, also known as a “jungle primary,” happens when parties do not hold their own primaries; instead, all candidates from all parties are on the same ballot in the same election. As previously mentioned, Mississippi uses nonpartisan primaries for special elections to fill legislative seats. Candidates appear on the ballot as “nonpartisan” because they not allowed to list party affiliation. Nebraska also uses this form of nonpartisan primary but for all state legislative elections.

California, Washington, and Louisiana have adopted nonpartisan primaries at the state and federal level. In these states candidates may indicate their party “preference” and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, then move on to the general election—the exception being Louisiana, where a second round is not needed if a simple majority is won.

Relevant Legislation & Ballot Measure:

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Instant Runoff Elections

Along with its runoff elections, Alabama uses “instant runoff voting” for its voters overseas. This is similar to a runoff election but takes place all in one day. A common form of ranked choice voting, this method allows the voter to rank all candidates by preference; candidates with low support are then eliminated and their votes are given to each voter’s second pick. While this form of voting already exists in several cities across the nation, Maine was the first to adopt it statewide via a ballot measure in November of 2016 that is set to take effect January 2018.

The measure has raised some flags for constitutional reasons. Most notably, the Maine’s top court issued a nonbinding opinion stating that the initiative conflicts with the Maine Constitution since the offices of U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, and Governor must be “elected by a plurality of votes.” The Maine Secretary of State is still preparing for the ballot measure to take effect in 2018.

Relevant Ballot Measure:

This is Takuya. He has proudly tracked and researched over 1,000 candidates and 23 ballot measures this year alone! This means calling the offices of secretaries of state and scavenging candidate records to ensure that you have access to the information you need to Vote Smart. Help him continue to track elections by making a tax-deductible contribution!

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