GOP gubernatorial candidate Tate Reeves votes at Liberty Baptist Church during the GOP runoff elections. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Legislation passed by voters would have enacted runoff elections for the first time in Mississippi history if a candidate for any of the eight statewide offices had failed to garner a majority vote last week.

At least one key legislator wants to extend runoffs to all offices – both local and districtwide, such as elections for legislative seats or county positions. Senate Elections Chair Jeff Tate, R-Meridian, says he will file a bill in the upcoming 2024 session to create runoffs for all offices in Mississippi.

“I don’t want to see people elected with a small percentage of the vote,” said Tate. “We want to see people elected with support from a majority of the electorate. I do not know what the appetite of the (Elections) Committee is to consider that. But I will file that bill.”

Tate is in position to have input on the runoff issue as chair of the Senate Elections Committee. There is no guarantee Lt. Gov Delbert Hosemann will reappoint Tate as Elections Committee chair for the new four-year term starting in January, though it would be unusual for him not to be reappointed.

A runoff can occur in statewide offices between the top two vote-getters when no candidate obtains a majority of the vote, or 50% plus one. A runoff was enacted for the office of governor and the other seven statewide elections in 2020 when the Mississippi Constitution was changed to remove an antiquated provision that mandated the state House select a winner from the top two vote-getters for any statewide office where no candidate obtained a majority of the popular vote and won the most votes in a majority of the House districts.

During the recently completed 2023 November general election, there was a candidate receiving a majority vote in each of the eight statewide elections, thus eliminating the need for a runoff. Incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves came the closest to not capturing the majority vote in his reelection bid against Democrat Brandon Presley. With votes still being counted, Reeves is winning win 52% of the vote and avoiding a runoff by about 25,110 votes.

The publicity surrounding the possibility of a runoff for the eight statewide posts confused many people into thinking there would be runoffs possible in all general elections. At one point after the Nov. 7 election, some counties in southwest Mississippi believed there would be runoffs in supervisors elections where no candidate garnered a majority vote.

But that was not the case, though Tate would like it to be.

The original 1890 Constitution mandated runoffs if no candidate obtained a majority vote in party primary elections, but not general elections. Instead, the constitution contained the language sending the eight statewide offices to the House to be decided.

There have been many instances in Mississippi history of candidates winning general elections with less than a majority vote. For instance, in 1987 Margaret “Wootsie” Tate won the state Senate District 47 post on the Gulf Coast with 42% of the vote in a three-way race.

Perhaps the most notable instance of a Mississippi politician winning an important seat without garnering a majority vote came in the 1978 race for the open U.S. Senate seat when Republican Thad Cochran won the three-way race with 45% of the vote. Cochran went on to win six more contests for the U.S. Senate – most by comfortable margins or with no opposition. There was not in 1978 and still is no requirement for a runoff in a general election for a federal office in Mississippi.

Under the state constitution, if a non-statewide general election is a tie, its outcome is to be determined by a game of chance. Mississippi has over the years seen some races determined by drawing of straws or some other game of chance.

Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia are the only states with general election runoff provisions. And the dynamics are different in Louisiana since there are no party primaries. In Louisiana candidates from all parties run together and if a candidate does not obtain a majority vote the top two vote-getters advance to a runoff.

Some states are beginning to enact what is known as ranked-choice voting.  The system allows voters to select a top choice for an office and then a second choice, third choice and so on.

If a candidate wins a majority of the vote, the ranked-choice voting is not a factor. But if no candidate wins a majority, the losing candidate is eliminated and the votes of that candidate go to other candidates based on the rankings voters gave to the losing candidate.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.