Runoffs Decide Elections That Are 'Too Close to Call'

U.S. voting poll
Runoff elections typically are triggered when no one candidate secures more than 50 percent of the vote in the general election. Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images

Sometimes, the winner of an election in the United States is clear by a landslide, and sometimes it's just too close to call. (Who can forget hearing that phrase repeated the night of the 2000 presidential election?) In the case of the City of Atlanta's 2017 election, it was also too close to call in four critical city offices: mayor, city council president and two city council seats. To settle the indecision, voters head back to the polls Dec. 5, 2017 to participate in a runoff election. And while the concept seems straightforward enough, as with all things political, the details aren't as simple as you might expect.

Runoff elections come into play when no one candidate secures more than 50 percent of the vote in the general election, but only 10 states actually mandate a rematch: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Vermont. And within those 10 states, there's an awful lot of variability: Vermont requires a runoff only in the event of a tie, and South Dakota holds a runoff only for specific offices (U.S. senator, representative and governor).


There are some other per-state particulars, as well — a few examples:

  • In Alabama, runoff elections are held on a Tuesday nine weeks after the primary, and the top two candidates face off. The state uses "instant runoff voting" also known as ranked choice voting for its uniform and overseas absentee voters. This means voters rank all the candidates in order of preference and votes are tallied based on every voter's first choice.
  • North Carolina holds runoffs only when no candidate secures more than 40 percent of the vote plus one (called a "substantial plurality"). A runoff is also not required unless the candidate with the second highest number of votes calls one.
  • While Kentucky isn't included in the group above, the state held runoffs for the offices of governor and lieutenant governor beginning in 1992 any time candidates failed to secure at least 40 percent in the primary race; this was repealed in 2008.

While Atlanta voters (and several other city voters) go back to the polls Dec. 5, other cities have already held their 2017 runoffs. On Nov. 21, Charleston area voters in South Carolina elected William Dudley Gregorie as City Councilman (he narrowly defeated competitor Amy Brennan with 52 percent of the vote), and Jackson, Mississippi voters elected Gerald Mumford as the Hinds County attorney by about 300 votes.

Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood are the top two candidates in the race for Atlanta mayor, and based on the fiery remarks by supporters on both sides, it's sure to be a big event.