A swing in a relatively small number of votes in the Nov. 7 general election for governor — say 10,000 — could have created all sorts of electoral chaos in Mississippi.
This election cycle was Mississippi’s first under a new law that mandates a runoff in statewide elections between the top two vote-getters if no candidate garners a majority of the vote. But the first gubernatorial election under the new runoff system between Republican incumbent Tate Reeves and Democratic challenger Brandon Presley raises the question of whether the new state runoff requirement will work.
Because of those questions, the office of Secretary of State Miachel Watson said there have been conversations among Mississippi election officials of moving runoff elections from three weeks after the general election to four weeks.
After the recently completed Nov. 7 election, Watson’s office did not receive the official results from all of the state’s 82 counties until early on the week of Thanksgiving. Results from the counties were not posted on the Secretary of State’s website until late on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
Under the new state law, the runoff would have been held one week later on Nov. 28.
The election for governor between Reeves and Presley was close. But it was obvious early on that Reeves would win a majority of the vote and avoid a runoff. According to final numbers, he garnered 50.9% of the vote. He avoided a runoff by 15,466 votes.
Had the election been just a little closer, casting doubts on whether a runoff would be held, it could have put election officials, candidates and even Mississippi voters in a precarious situation.
What if the candidates did not know until a week before — after those final county tallies were compiled and posted — whether there would be a runoff? Should they be campaigning while waiting for the final results?
State Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, who is a member of the Senate Election Committee, pointed out that a runoff ballot cannot be printed until results from all 82 counties are reported to the Secretary of State’s office, which then certifies the results. Absentee ballots for the runoff cannot be mailed out until the new ballot is printed. It is difficult to fathom how an absentee ballot could be printed and made available to the public in a timely manner if the results were not certified until one week before the runoff election — as would have been the case this year.
It is important to note that the final results often are significantly different than the results reported on election night or even days after the election.
For instance, the Associated Press reported on Nov. 17 — 10 days after the general election — that Reeves had 51.5% of the vote while Presley had 47.1%. The final, certified results were closer, with Reeves capturing 50.9% and Presley winning 47.7%. Third party candidate Gwendolyn Gray received the remainder of the vote.
The vote tally normally changes as affidavit ballots are inspected and counted, if they are found to be legal, and as mail-in ballots are returned and counted. State law provides local election officials time after election day to count those ballots.
The potential problems a runoff could cause have not gone unnoticed.
“It is a concern for Secretary Watson. Circuit clerks have talked about attempting to move to a four-week window,” said Elizabeth Jonson, a spokesperson for Watson.
Georgia is the only state with a runoff similar to Mississippi’s. In Georgia, the runoff is four weeks after the general election.
In Mississippi, the runoff requirement was enacted in 2020 for the office of governor and the other seven statewide elections after the Mississippi Constitution was changed to remove an antiquated provision. Under the previous provision, a candidate had to receive both a majority of the popular vote and win the most votes in a majority of House districts. If both requirements weren’t fulfilled under the previous law, the House would select the winner of the two top vote-getters.
Mississippi has yet to have a runoff election under the new provision. It is likely that the first, when it occurs, will cause a certain amount of confusion.
It would take action of the Legislature to change a runoff from three weeks to four weeks after the general election.
Of course, an option that was ignored by the Mississippi Legislature was to eschew the runoff and simply make the candidate with the most votes the winner — regardless of the margin of the victory — as is done in 45 other states.
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