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In recent decades, most Latin American countries have adopted second-round runoff. Usually, a runoff is required if no candidate reaches 50 percent of the vote, although in some countries the threshold is reduced to 45 percent or 40 percent. In the United States, runoff has been used in the party primaries of various states since the first decades of the twentieth century, in part because the Democratic Party was dominant and its nomination was tantamount to election. As of 2016, it was used in primaries in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas.
This paper will assess the impact of second-round runoff on democracy in Latin America and the United States. Building on previous work by the author for Latin America (McClintock, 2018), the paper will argue that, overall, between 1990 and 2017, runoff improved levels of democracy in Latin America, as measured by Freedom House and Varieties of Democracy scores. The paper will argue that runoff enhanced winners’ legitimacy, enticed winning candidates toward the center of the political spectrum, and did not depress voter turnout. In addition, however, the paper will indicate that runoff enabled party proliferation and will consider remedies for this problem. Further, looking in particular at elections in Latin America in 2017-2018, the paper will examine the incidence of failures to reach the runoff by likely Condorcet winners and consider remedies for this problem.
Assessing the impact of runoff in the United States, the paper will build on previous work by Bullock and Johnson (1992) and Engstrom and Engstrom (2008). These scholars’ assessments of runoff were also largely favorable, emphasizing the positive effects for the legitimacy of the winners. However, scholars also fear that African-American first-round winners are disadvantaged by runoff, tending to lose to Caucasian runner-ups in the runoff. Looking at primary elections under runoff since 2000, this paper will aim to explore effects not only on winners’ legitimacy and ethnicity but also on voter turnout, winners’ ideological position, the number of candidates in the race, and the incidence of electoral losses by likely Condorcet winners.
The paper will conclude with an assessment of whether or not the advantages and disadvantages of runoff are similar or different in Latin America and the United States. It will also briefly consider to what extent the advantages and disadvantages of runoff are similar or different to those of ranked-choice voting.
Bullock, Charles S. III and Johnson, Loch (1992) Runoff Elections in the United States. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Engstrom, Richard L. and Engstrom, Richard N. (2008) “The Majority Vote Rule and Runoff Primaries in the United States.” Electoral Studies 27(3): 407-416.
McClintock, Cynthia. (2018) Electoral Rules and Democracy in Latin America. New York: Oxford University Press.