Elections boards to consider instant runoff voting

By Zach Ahmad
Published March 29th 2007 in Rocky Mount Telegram (NC)
TARBORO When Rocky Mount voters go to the polls this October to elect their city leaders, they may get more than one choice per race.

The Nash and Edgecombe County boards of elections are mulling a request from the state to make Rocky Mount one of 10 pilot cities in North Carolina to hold instant runoff elections.

The format would allow voters to select a first, second and third choice in all municipal elections. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, ballots marked for the top two candidates would be set aside, and the rest would be recounted based on their alternative votes to decide the race.

Both boards will hold a meeting at 3 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall to hear a presentation on the pilot program from N.C. State Board of Elections Director Gary Bartlett and possibly vote on whether to participate.

"Whoever does it, I think, will be making history," Bartlett said. "This is certainly the wave of the future."

Bartlett said instant runoff voting would eliminate the four-week lag that occurs between an election and a runoff. Also, because runoffs typically have low turnout, he said this system would significantly increase participation levels.

"The biggest thing we need to understand is that this gives more participation voting one time than it does in two elections, because there is such a dropoff," Bartlett said.

Bartlett said Rocky Mount's medium size and unique dual-county location made it ideal for the pilot, along with the city's busy political atmosphere.

"You couldn't ask for a more perfect pilot than Rocky Mount," Bartlett said. "It is a city that has a range of interests, and more important, it seems like they have competitive elections."

Before it happens, however, both elections boards will need to approve it, and there will be issues for them to consider.

Chiefly, there is the matter of voter confusion. Edgecombe County Elections Director Gayle Hudson said officials would need to be active to make sure voters understand the ballots they're given.

"The biggest concern is that many people will think: 'What in the world is this?'" Hudson said. "Wherever we could, we would need to be in a place to discuss it."

Hudson said she, Bartlett and Nash County Elections Director Tracy Reams have discussed having an extra person at each polling place to explain the new ballot, as well as launching a public relations effort to make sure voters know what to anticipate.

Moreover, if history is an indication, the pilot may not be a real test at all. Rocky Mount has had only one runoff election in the past 10 years, which resulted in Andre Knight's election to the Ward 1 seat on the Rocky Mount City Council.

This year, the Ward 1, Ward 2 and Ward 4 seats will be up for election in Rocky Mount. Voters will also elect a new mayor in a race that will likely include council members Reuben Blackwell and David Combs.

Some elections board members said that while they are receptive to the concept of instant runoff voting, they will wait until Tuesday's meeting before making up their minds.

"I think Nash and Edgecombe are a good fit for the pilot," said Edgecombe County Board of Elections Chairwoman Gladys Shelton. "(But) I can't commit until we get answers to the questions we have."

If approved by the elections boards, officials said the matter would likely go before the Rocky Mount City Council, though their approval is not legally necessary.

SAMPLE BALLOT

Get a look at the sample ballot and the specifics of how the actual vote and vote count will work by downloading a copy of the state instructions here.