We confirmed with Rachel Raper, the Director of the Orange County Board of Elections, that Bonnie Hauser has requested a runoff against Jennifer Moore, pending the results of the official count. (There are still 37 absentee ballots and 46 provision ballots that need to be officially counted; Moore would have to receive almost 80% of those to avoid a runoff scenario.) Moore gained 461 more votes than Hauser in the March 5 election.

If there’s a runoff, it will take place on May 14.

The candidates

Incumbent Moore is part of the progressive ticket and ran with newcomer Wendy Padilla and incumbent Carrie Doyle, who both cleared the 50% threshold of total votes cast and captured seats.

Jennifer Moore
Jennifer Moore Courtesy: Orange County Schools

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. We diagrammed out their connections in a data visualization. (Click to see full size.)

Bonnie Hauser
Courtesy: Orange County Schools

A runoff would happen May 14

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.

Who can vote in a runoff?

Because this is a non-partisan race, all voters who live in the district where a second primary is conducted can vote. This means voters in Orange County outside of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. (For partisan races, only people registered with that political party or unaffiliated voters who either didn’t vote in the primary or voted for the ballot of the party for which the primary is being held would be eligible. That’s not applicable here.)

New registration of voters is not permitted between the first and second primaries. This means same-day registration is not available during early voting for the second primary. However, individuals who become eligible to vote between the primary and second primary and who are otherwise eligible to vote in the second primary may register and vote in the second primary.

Voting Precincts
If you live in an Orange County Schools precinct, you will be eligible to vote in the runoff.

Runoffs are really expensive to run.

As you might suspect, runoffs are super expensive to run.

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.

There are two statewide runoffs for Republicans – in the Lt. Governor and State Auditor races. None of the candidates in those primary elections reached the 30% of votes needed to avoid a runoff. There are no statewide runoffs for Democrats.

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....