Two Key TX House Races Head to Expensive and Unnecessary Runoff Elections

Created: 07 March, 2024
Updated: 12 March, 2024
4 min read

Photo Credit: Enrique Macias on Unsplash


Two US House primaries in Texas are headed for runoffs in May. Voters who are already exhausted with the political process will be asked to go to the polls in elections that historically draw in half of the primary's turnout -- which was abysmally low in 2024.

Advocates for nonpartisan voting reform say there is a solution to prevent unnecessarily expensive elections in Texas and other states that use runoff systems: Consider an alternative voting method like ranked choice voting and nonpartisan primary reform.

The Elections Headed for Runoff

None of the Republican candidates who ran in the primaries for the 12th congressional district and the 23rd district were able to garner enough votes to avoid a May runoff. Here is what Roll Call has to say about the race in TX-12:

"State Rep. Craig Goldman, chairman of the Republican caucus in the state House, and investor John O’Shea, who was endorsed by state Attorney General Ken Paxton, will meet in a runoff after finishing ahead of three rivals in the battle for the Republican nomination to the seat left open by Republican Rep. Kay Granger’s retirement."

And the 23rd:

"Republican Rep. Tony Gonzales, who supported a bipartisan gun safety bill after a mass shooting at a school in Uvalde in his 23rd District, must win a runoff to keep his seat. He will face off in May against Brandon Herrera, a YouTube personality and Second Amendment activist."

Due to how the districts are drawn and the use of partisan primaries, one of these districts -- specifically TX-12 -- will be decided outright in May. Whoever wins the Republican primary runoff is all but guaranteed to win in November.

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The Cook Political Report has the 12th district at a Partisan Voting Index of R+12. Retiring congresswoman Kay Granger won re-election in 2022 with 64% of the vote. Trump carried the district in 2020 with 58.2% of the vote.

A little over 12% of the registered voting population in Texas participated in the 2024 GOP primaries, and while this is the statewide total, reports indicate that total turnout in TX-12 saw a substantial drop compared to the 2020 primaries.

The general rule for runoffs is take the turnout in primaries and cut it in half. This will likely be the turnout in May, which means the candidate who all but secures their electoral victory ahead of November will win with a percentage of voters that falls in the single digits.

It wouldn't be the first time this has happened in Texas. US Sen. Ted Cruz owes his incumbency to a low-turnout primary runoff in 2012. He lost the primary election but garnered enough votes to force a runoff and benefited from the lower turnout.

Incumbency would likely help US Rep. Tony Gonzalez to some extent in the 23rd District, but he has to turnout supporters in May and his district is in a region of Texas that also saw a notable drop in turnout compared to the 2020 presidential cycle.

Fortunately for district voters, the 23rd has long been one of the few districts in the Lone Star State considered competitive. Even though the GOP nominee will end up being selected with a marginal percentage of the registered voting population, November will come down to which side is more successful turning out the vote.

There Are Better Alternatives to Primary Runoff Elections

Advocates of nonpartisan election reform, particularly supporters of ranked choice voting, assert that election runoffs are unnecessary and expensive -- especially when there are alternative voting methods that can determine a majority winner when a higher percentage of voters participate.

Back in 2022, Ranked Choice Voting for Texas released data that showed that Texas could save $6 million on runoff elections if the state switched to ranked choice voting in primary elections. 

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“Texas taxpayers are paying more money to make fewer people’s voices count. Ranked choice voting would solve the problem of expensive, low-turnout primary runoffs and a drawn-out campaign season,” said Harriet Wasserstrum, chair of Ranked Choice Voting for Texas. 

Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference.  First choices are counted. If no candidate gets over 50% of first-choice selections, an instant runoff is held that eliminates the last place candidate and applies their voters’ next choices to the results.

This process repeats until a single candidate has a majority of the vote.

Switching to a new voting method would ensure winners are decided in the primary, which may not have a high turnout, but it is significantly higher than runoff elections held 3 months later when voters want a brief reprieve from politics ahead of the general election.

We are talking about an electorate that is already exhausted with the 2024 cycle, the nonstop partisan warfare between the Republican and Democratic Parties, and the lack of change in the candidates they are given. 

Voter participation largely comes down to perceived incentive. If voters don't like their limited options, there is little incentive to participate. This is why on top of RCV, Texas should consider nonpartisan primary reform.

Having all candidates and voters participate on a single primary ballot, while also allowing voters to rank their choices, maximizes the incentive for candidates to appeal to a broader segment of the voting population -- which would in turn incentivize more voters to participate.

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