Aug 2, 2022 - Politics

A brief history of why Arizona doesn't do runoff elections

Illustration of an "I voted (again)" sticker overlapping an "I voted" sticker.
Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Unlike in some other states, Arizona voters won't have to look ahead to a runoff election to decide the Democratic and Republican nominees after the final votes are tallied from today's primary.

The big picture: Ten states have provisions for some kind of runoff elections in the primaries, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But not Arizona.

The back story: We have never had runoffs for primaries, but there was a brief period in the early 1990s when the state experimented with runoffs for general contests for statewide offices.

  • But the results were disastrous enough that we quickly abandoned it.

Context: In 1986, Republican Evan Mecham was elected governor with just under 40% of the vote in a three-way race against Democrat Carolyn Warner and Democrat-turned-independent Bill Shultz.

  • Mecham quickly came under fire after a series of controversial and offensive comments. He was impeached and removed from office for misuse of state funds and obstruction of justice after just 15 months.

To avoid future Mecham-type situations, the legislature referred a measure to the ballot in 1988, which voters approved, requiring candidates to get a majority of the vote.

  • If no one got 50-plus-1, the top two candidates would face each other in a runoff election.
  • Mecham still won a majority in his two-way race in the GOP primary, so a runoff requirement wouldn't have stopped him from winning the nomination.

Yes, but: It didn't take long for Arizonans to get a lesson in how the runoff provision would work. In the 1990 gubernatorial race, Republican Fife Symington got 49.7% to Democrat Terry Goddard's 49.2%, but because third-party candidates won small shares of the vote as well, Symington fell slightly short of a majority.

  • There were no laws on the books governing how runoff elections would work, so then-Gov. Rose Mofford had to call a special session.
  • Arizona at the time was still subject to a provision of the Voting Rights Act requiring the Department of Justice to approve all changes to voting and election laws, which complicated the enactment of new laws and procedures.
  • Symington won the 1991 runoff election and took office on March 6, two months into the legislative session.

Lawmakers were so disgusted with the mess caused by the runoff requirement that by the time he took office, they were already debating proposals to send the issue back to the ballot in 1992 to ask voters to return to the previous system: The candidate with the most votes won, regardless of whether they received a majority.

  • Voters agreed that the old way was better, passing Proposition 100 with 67% of the vote.

After coming from behind in a race he was widely expected to lose, Symington remembers what a letdown it was to find out, "I'd won but I didn't win."

  • "I don't recommend runoffs," he tells Axios Phoenix.

Fast-forward to today: Given that there are at least three Republican candidates running for governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer and superintendent of public instruction, it's possible that none of the winners of those contests will get the majority of the vote.

Meanwhile: Municipal races still require candidates to get the majority of the vote.

  • Every municipality except Tucson has nonpartisan elections in which all candidates for each office appear on the same ballot, and if no one gets a majority, the top two candidates advance to a runoff.

My thought bubble: The Symington-Goddard matchup was the first political campaign I remember in any detail — I turned 11 between the general election and the runoff — but I wouldn't realize until I was much older why the runoff was such an unusual event.

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