Costly Antique: The Real History of the Second Primary

Locke Craig, NC governor 1912-1917

Locke Craig, NC governor 1912-1917

The Civitas Review magazine will be published shortly. As the July 17 Second Primary approaches, here’s a preview of an article from the magazine.

The second primary is a disturbing ghost from North Carolina’s past. It is also as expensive and unnecessary now as it was tyrannical when it was first instituted a century ago – in an era when a racist Democratic agenda dominated state government.

This year 15 offices in North Carolina will be contested in second primaries held on July 17. The North Carolina State Board of Elections reports that there will be three Congressional races (all Republican), five Council of State races (four Republican, one Democratic), and seven state legislature races (five Republican and two Democratic).

Under state law, a race is eligible for a second primary if none of the candidates gains 40 percent of the vote or more in the primary. Imagine enduring an expensive battle to win the first primary only to find that a costly and drawn-out contest against members of your own party is still ahead of you. This is the grim reality facing fifteen candidates trying to gain their party’s nomination before November.

This year, only one eligible contender, Greg Dority, a Republican candidate for State Auditor from Beaufort County, opted out of holding a second primary this year and terminated his candidacy. According to his Facebook page, “Two factors played heavily into my decision. First, is the overwhelming need to bring our party together and construct our best scenario for victory in November.… Secondly … the path to victory would require an aggressive voter awareness campaign and a substantial expenditure of resources …. Better for all concerned to unite behind a nominee in May and avoid a bitter and costly struggle through July.”

Dority’s statement highlights some of the criticism of the second primary system. Many are concerned that second primaries create divisions within parties. Candidates are forced to spend more time and money campaigning against same-party opponents than against the other party’s nominee.

Also of concern is the expense of holding an additional primary with little voter turnout. This summer’s second primaries could cost taxpayers $8 million, while less than 10 percent of eligible voters are expected to cast their ballots (Perlmutt). Dority himself participated in a bitter second primary contest for U.S. Congress two years ago in which 11,000 fewer voters participated than in the regular primary.

Another issue is that the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) passed by the U.S. Congress in 1986 requires participating districts to allow enough time between elections for ballots to be dispersed to service men and women, thereby dragging out the costly campaign process further.

The roots of the second primary go back to one of the darkest times in the history of North Carolina and of the South in general. North Carolina’s second primary law was enacted in 1915 under Governor Locke Craig, who a few years earlier had helped the Democrats gain power through an aggressive “White Supremacy Campaign” (Faulkner). In addition to North Carolina, seven other states hold second primaries: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. It seems that the original purpose of the second primary in many places was to bolster the power of Democrats in the segregation era.

Behind closed doors, party bosses intended the second primary to be the “real” general election. It allowed the Democratic establishment’s standard-bearer a “do over” if he failed to win in the first primary.

 Consider a first primary in which a political maverick somehow got more votes than the party favorite without topping 40 percent. The second primary allowed the Democratic power structure to consolidate support for its preferred candidate, usually enabling him to roll over his opponent. As the winner of the secondary primary, the party insider was usually guaranteed to win in the fall, since voter intimidation and electoral trickery often deterred the Republicans from fielding a candidate (Kousser). This process undermined the very foundations of democracy by eliminating real choices at the voting booth.

The Democratic Party held the North Carolina governorship almost uninterrupted for over a century:  After the 1898 “White Supremacy Campaign” against the Fusion (Populist and Republican) government, Republicans did not regain control of the General Assembly until November 2010. This suggests that the Democratic Party’s tactics to ensure a one-party system were in general successful and had long-term effects.

Two Southern states have already done away with the second primary. Kentucky’s short-lived runoff law, adopted in 1992, was repealed in 2008 after taxpayers barely avoided paying for a second primary for their gubernatorial race which would have cost the counties $5 million. Florida repealed its runoff law in 2001 as part of the state’s overhaul of the voting process in the wake of their 2000 presidential election fiasco.

Several alternatives to second primaries have been proposed. One solution is instant runoff voting, promoted by a range of political figures from President Obama to Senator John McCain (FairVote). In this system, voters rank their preferences all at once. Proponents contend that instant runoffs eliminate the need for long intervals of time to pass between elections in order to comply with UOCAVA. Others, however, are concerned that voters would be voting for practically anyone who might gain office, eliminating their real choices in an election.

Another option would be to allow the candidate with the most votes in the initial primary to advance. Kentucky has adopted this winner-take-all approach, though many are concerned that controversies over close elections could become more frequent. Supporters say that recounts could still be implemented in close races.

Whatever the solution adopted, there is bipartisan support in favor of the abolition of second primaries, which many view as an antiquated process that is no longer needed to support a hostile one-party system and which only leads to needless government expense in harsh economic times.

Rhett Forman is an intern with the Civitas Institute.

Works Cited

FairVote. Endorsers of Instant Runoff Voting. 2000-2011. <>.

Faulkner, Ronnie W. Fusion Politics. n.d. <>.

Kousser, J. Morgan. Historical Origins of the Runoff Primary. n.d. <>.

Perlmutt, David. Should N.C. abandon expensive, low-interest runoff elections. 2 June 2012. <>.




This article was posted in Elections & Voting by Rhett Forman on July 10, 2012 at 11:29 AM.

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Comments on this article

  • 1

    Karen Jul 18, 2012 at 18:30

    Very interesting to learn that only seven other states hold second primaries. What do other states do instead? A winner take all approach?

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