Runoffs Without the Costs

By Jenna Ashley Robinson
Published August 18th 2006 in Carolina Journal Online
This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Jenna Ashley Robinson, E.A. Morris Fellowship Assistant for the John Locke Foundation.

On August 3, Gov. Mike Easley signed H.B. 1024 into law, creating a pilot program for Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) in North Carolina. Starting in 2007, North Carolina will begin to use IRV for statewide elections for judicial vacancies and will allow 10 cities and 10 counties to try the new voting method. Instant Runoff Voting will give North Carolinians a unique opportunity to express their true preferences to politicians and political parties, while saving time and money on elections.

North Carolina now conducts elections under plurality voting rules in which the candidate with the most votes wins. If three or more candidates run in the race, then the winner can have less than a majority of the vote, as the U.S. witnessed in the controversial 1992 presidential race involving Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ross Perot. Because of this feature, the plurality method is nicknamed “First Past the Post” voting. In such cases, the same question always arises: was the winning candidate really preferred by most voters?

Instant Runoff Voting ostensibly solves that problem; it is a ranked-choice voting method that generates majority winners in a single round of voting. With IRV, instead of choosing just one candidate, voters rank them in order of preference. IRV then uses those rankings to emulate a series of runoff elections, ultimately determining a winner with a majority of the vote. According to proponents, IRV saves time and money by eliminating the need and cost of two rounds of voting. Having only one round of voting benefits both voters and candidates by allowing them to focus their energy and funds on one election rather than two, typically boosting turnout.

Moreover, since Instant Runoff Voting requires only one election, taxpayers never have to finance costly runoffs, as they did in 2004 for the Democratic nomination for Superintendent of Public Instruction. In that case, the runoff election cost counties $3.5 million for a turnout of only 2 percent to 3 percent. The IRV method would have avoided a second election, saving money and ensuring that more voters’ preferences were included in the final election outcome.

Proponents also claim IRV is fairer than plurality elections because it ensures the election of the candidate preferred by most voters and eliminates the problem of spoiler candidates knocking off major candidates. Moreover, IRV could be a boon to those candidates. Under IRV rules, voting for a “spoiler” third party need no longer be dismissed as “wasting your vote”; a ranking system will allow voters to identify the second-best option.

Under IRV rules, each voter casts one vote and ranks candidates in order of choice. The counting of ballots simulates a series of runoff elections. All first choices are counted, and if no candidate wins a majority of first choices, then the last-place candidate is eliminated. Ballots of voters who ranked the eliminated candidate first then are redistributed to their next-choice candidates, as indicated on each voter’s ballot. Last-place candidates are successively eliminated and ballots are redistributed to next choices until one candidate remains or a candidate gains more than 50 percent of the votes.

Voters have the option to rank as many or as few candidates as they wish. Using IRV, voters have a chance to express their true preferences, rather than vote for the "lesser of two evils" because their ballot can still count toward a winner if their first choice loses.

Instant Runoff Voting will give North Carolinians a unique opportunity to express their true preferences to politicians and political parties, while saving time and money on elections.