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A better way to settle primaries
September 8, 2004

Almost anything would be better than runoff elections. "Instant primaries" might be the best alternative.

Runoffs are supposed to make sure that whoever wins a multi-candidate race has the support of a substantial number of voters – not just one more vote than anyone else. So unless the leading candidate gets at least 40 percent of the votes in North Carolina, he or she has to go head-to-head with the candidate in second place. (Unless number two decides against asking for the runoff.)

It's a logical approach. But only if substantial numbers of people care enough to vote a second time.

Often they don't, particularly in races for obscure state offices. Runoff winners can be chosen by a pitiful handful of voters – about 3 percent in the recent Democratic runoff for superintendent of public instruction.

If North Carolina used "instant primaries" instead, winners would have substantial, if not necessarily enthusiastic, support. We'd vote for two candidates instead of one, and rank them in order of preference. For example: First choice, Meg Scott Phipps; second choice, Osama bin Laden.

If no candidate got more than 40 percent, the second choices would be piled on. Thus, "instant runoff."

It's simple, it avoids the aggravation and expense of a conventional runoff and, best of all, it guarantees that the winner has been chosen by a majority of voters. If they all aren't turning cartwheels with joy, presumably they can live with the result.

State Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat, says he plans to introduce a bill to establish instant runoffs in statewide races. It no doubt will run into assorted objections. First off, not every county has voting equipment that could do the electoral arithmetic. But every county should get such equipment in any case.

Other problems might turn up if legislators and electoral experts examine the details of the proposal. But they should. At least in principle, instant runoffs make a lot of sense.

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