There was a curious bit of information deep in Tammy Grubb’s coverage of last night’s election results for the Orange County School Board race:

[Bonnie] Hauser, who asked the NGOP to drop its endorsement after learning about it, came in fourth, with just 461 fewer votes than [Jennifer] Moore.

That means Hauser could ask for a runoff, depending on the outcome of the official count, which is March 15 and will include 37 absentee ballots and 46 provisional ballots that have not been counted yet, said Orange County Elections Director Rachel Raper.

School board candidates have to receive at least 50% of the total votes cast to be elected, she explained, which in this race was at least 6,563 votes for each of the three winners. Moore was 66 votes shy of that threshold.

Incumbent Moore is part of the progressive ticket and ran with newcomer Wendy Padilla and incumbent Carrie Doyle, who both cleared the threshold and captured seats. Hauser, an incumbent who came in fourth in the vote totals, ran on a ticket with Michael Johnson and Cindy Shriner – and had hitched her wagon to a network of conservative groups and people.

A runoff could happen.

Here’s the deal: There’s a state law  – 163‑293.a.1 and 163-293.b.2 – that says that if there’s a group of people seeking elected office for two or more offices, a candidate needs to receive a majority of votes to be declared the winner. (In this case, that means the total votes cast for all candidates, divided by the number of seats available, divided by two.) If a candidate doesn’t reach that threshold, a candidate equal in number to the positions remaining (in this case, one) with the next highest number of votes can request a runoff election. The current system was put into place for the Orange County School Board in 1977.

Moore currently has more than 461 votes more than Hauser with 83 provisional and absentee ballots that will be counted on March 15. If Moore gets 66 of those votes and reaches 50% of the total votes, no runoff. If not, Hauser can ask for one. We don’t yet know whether she will. On Facebook, we’ve noticed Hauser’ allies starting to acknowledge Moore’s win.

Runoffs are really expensive to run.

As you might suspect, runoffs are super expensive to run. (Hauser has long been a champion of fiscal responsibility.)

A recent study (High Costs and Low Turnout for U.S. Runoff Elections) by a think tank called Third Way looked at runoff elections in Texas and Louisiana. They found that runoffs on average cost $7 per voter in Texas. In Louisiana, statewide runoffs cost almost as much as the first-round election, doubling voting expenditures and amounting to $5 million spent each time.

Turnout also goes down

In the same study, the researchers found that turnout typically declines by 38% between primary elections and primary runoff elections.

We were curious how these runoff rules came about

Turns out, their origins are pretty racist. They’re only available in 10 states, almost all in the South and were adopted during the Jim Crow era to help “maintain white Democratic control of politics.”

As Reid Wilson writing in The Washington Post put it, “Those runoffs are low-turnout affairs, costly for cash-strapped state elections boards and draining for candidates who have to spend another month or two campaigning for the votes of a narrow segment of the electorate. These days, given Republican domination of the South, they can serve to elect the most conservative  possible candidates.”

To learn more about the history of runoffs in the South, we recommend reading this deep dive by a researcher at the University of Massachusetts.

Melody Kramer is a Peabody-award winning journalist whose work has appeared on NPR and member stations around the country, as well as in publications ranging from National Geographic to Esquire Magazine....