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What triggers a runoff election in Texas?

A voting center sign in Dallas.
Rachel Osier Lindley
A voting center sign in Dallas.

On March 5, Texas will be one of several states where voters make their voices heard on “Super Tuesday” and determine which of their preferred candidates will end up on the ballot for the November General Election.

In Texas, which joins 14 other states and one territory (American Samoa) in Super Tuesday voting, there are 150 seats in the Texas House of Representatives and 38 Congressional seats on the ballot, as well as several state senate and judicial races. That means a lot of party primary races across Texas.

For incumbents without opponents on the March 5 ballot, it’ll be smooth sailing. Running unopposed in their party’s primary means they’ll coast to the general election. But several hotly contested races feature a slew of candidates, which increases chances the state’s Republicans and Democrats won’t know all of their nominees just yet.

“In Texas, we do have runoffs for primary elections. And that happens when a candidate fails to get 50% plus one vote, meaning a majority of votes to get the party nomination,” Alicia Pierce, the Assistant Secretary of State for Communications, told The Texas Newsroom.

And if no candidate hits the required 50%-plus-one threshold?

“The top two candidates will then go on to the runoff in order to determine who gets the party nomination for the general election in November,” said Pierce. This year’s runoff elections in Texas take place in May.

How many runoffs will there be? It depends

Predicting the outcomes of a primary election – or most elections – isn’t an exact science. But recent reporting and polling numbers might give voters a glimpse of which candidates they might have to cast another ballot for in May.

One example is a state senate race in Houston, where a half dozen Democrats are hoping to get the nod to replace former state Sen. John Whitmire. Whitmire was the former dean of the state’s upper chamber until he decided to hang it up in Austin and launch a successful campaign to be Houston’s mayor. Three of the top Democrats hoping to fill Whitmire’s seat are polling just below 20%, Houston Public Media reported, and nearly 40% of voters remain undecided.

But a race doesn’t necessarily need to be that close to go into election overtime.

In the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, nine candidates are vying for a shot to challenge incumbent U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas. The top vote getters in that race will likely be state Sen. Roland Gutierrez and U.S. Rep. Colin Allred. A poll conducted late last month showed Allred has support from about 40% of likely voters to Gutierrez’s 12%. But that 40% is still shy of the 50% plus one needed to win their party’s nomination outright.

In El Paso, there are four candidates vying to replace outgoing state Rep. Line Ortega, a Democrat, in House District 77. It’s not as crowded a field as other races, but three of the four candidates are veteran office holders with considerable name ID. There is no Republican challenger in that race, so whoever wins that contest – either next week or in May – will head to Austin next year.

Voting in the primaries ... and the runoffs

Texas has what are known as open primaries, which means a voter can cast a ballot in either a Republican or Democratic primary as they so choose. But voters can’t switch parties if they want to vote in a subsequent runoff election.

"So, if you were (voting) in the Republican primary, then on the runoff, you'll need to vote in the Republican runoff,” said Pierce. “And with the same thing with the Democratic primary and runoff.”

However, if someone didn’t vote during the March election, they can still vote in the party runoff of their choice come May.

“The important thing is that – in this election cycle of the primary and then the runoff – you have to stay consistent with your party,” Pierce said.

The primary runoff election in Texas is set for Tuesday, May 28. But there are a few key dates that come before that, including:

  • Monday, April 29 – The last day to register to vote in the runoff election
  • Friday, May 17 – The last day to apply for a mail ballot
  • Monday, May 20 – The first day of early voting
  • Friday, May 24 – The last day of early voting
  • Tuesday, May 28 – The last day to receive a mail ballot

When can a candidate request a recount?

Candidates can ask for a recount of the ballots if certain requirements are met. To initiate a recount, the total vote difference between the candidate requesting one and the candidate who received the most votes must be less than 10% of the latter’s vote total.

For example, if Candidate A received 950 votes and candidate B received 1,000, a recount could be requested because the difference, 50 votes, is less than 10 % of 1,000. For more information, here is a detailed breakdown from the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

Copyright 2024 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Julián Aguilar | The Texas Newsroom