Instant runoffs experiment in N.C. worth a close look

Published May 31st 2005 in Asheville Citizen-Times (NC)
If the N.C. Senate goes along with the state House, 10 North Carolina counties will experiment with “instant runoffs,” an innovation that may solve the two big problems of the present election system: cost and turnout.

North Carolina permits a runoff in party primaries if no candidate receives 40 percent of the vote the first time around. The extreme example of what can happen occurred last year when June Atkinson and Marshall Stewart sought the Democratic nomination for superintendent of public instruction. The runoff cost $3 million and drew only 3 percent of the state’s registered voters.

It wouldn’t do simply to eliminate runoffs. In this particular case, Stewart then would have won the nomination even though he was the choice of only 35 percent of Democrats in a three-way primary. As it turned out, Atkinson won the runoff with 55 percent of the vote.

Without a runoff, there is the danger that a fringe candidate with a small but zealous backing could emerge from a crowded field with his or her party’s nomination even though most party members found their standard-bearer repugnant. That was not the case in the education race, but it could happen in the future.

The solution embodied in the House bill would hold both primaries at the same time. How? By letting voters rank the candidates and falling back on the rankings if no candidate were the first choice of 40 percent of the voters.

It works this way: In the second round, all ballots that ranked an eliminated candidate first but also ranked one or both of the runoff candidates would be counted for the runoff candidate who ranked higher. Those votes then would be added to the number of ballots that gave top ranking to that candidate to determine the winner.

This would eliminate the expense of the second primary while giving everyone who turned out an opportunity to have his or her vote counted in the runoff.

An additional advantage cited by proponents is that it would cut down on negative campaigning because candidates would hope for a high ranking from those who favored one of their opponents and therefore would not want to alienate anyone.

The original bill would have instituted instant runoffs in 2006 for all statewide party primaries and statewide judicial elections necessitated by a vacancy. It was changed in the Election Law and Campaign Finance Reform Committee to instead set up a pilot program for local elections in 10 counties chosen to represent “diversity of population, size, regional location and demographic composition.”

Each chosen county’s board of elections must concur and no multi-county elections can be subject to instant runoff unless that system is used in all counties concerned.

In Western North Carolina, the House vote was strictly along party lines. Favoring the plan were Democrats Bob England of Ellenboro, Susan Fisher (a co-sponsor) and Bruce Goforth of Asheville, Phil Haire of Sylva and Ray Rapp of Mars Hill. Opposed were Republicans Phillip Frye of Spruce Pine, Mitch Gillespie of Marion, Carolyn Justus of Hendersonville, Trudi Walend of Brevard and Roger West of Marble. Republican Wilma Sherrill of Asheville was absent.

Instant runoffs are not unknown. They were used in 2004 in San Francisco and for overseas and out-of-state military voters in Louisiana. Utah Republicans have used the system since 2002 at state conventions to select nominees. “It sounded complicated, but we discovered that voters had no difficulty with the rank-order ballots,” said that state’s attorney general, Republican Mark Shurtleff.

Still, the law of unintended consequences is alive and well, which is why the House committee acted wisely in opting for a pilot program. This way, if any unanticipated problems crop up, they can be corrected before the system is used in statewide elections.

Additionally, as Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina points out, “County governments pay the cost of runoff elections, not the state, so they have an incentive to try new methods — but they also need to be sure anything new works, because if it doesn’t, they will pay the price with their local voters.”

Instant runoffs have the potential to reduce costs while preserving and in fact reinforcing the concept that a party nominee have a broad base of support. The Senate should let 10 counties give it a try.