Instant Runoff
Published October 23rd 2007 in Winston-Salem Journal
When Don Frantz won a seat on the Cary Town Council this month, he broke new ground in North Carolina elections. Voters elected him in the state’s first instant runoff, which appears to have been a considerable success.

The 2007 General Assembly approved two pilot projects for instant runoffs this year. Cary led the way with its October municipal elections. Hendersonville will follow with a November vote.

Under Cary’s charter, and those of many other municipalities, a candidate who finishes second in the first round of voting can call for a runoff if the leader got less than a majority of the vote. But runoff elections are costly to taxpayers and normally draw only a small percentage of the voters who showed up in the first place. Low turnout is especially likely in a race where there is only one, low-level office on the ballot.

With an instant-runoff system, voters indicate their first choice for office. Then they vote again for their second choice. The two votes are stored separately. If the vote tally shows that no one won outright, then elections officials separate out the ballots cast for the candidates who were eliminated and count the second-place votes for the two remaining candidates.

It sounds more confusing than it actually is. Voters in Cary told an independent researcher that they found the process easy and satisfying. The two candidates in the instant runoff also endorsed the process - after they realized they were in an instant runoff but before they knew who had won. In Cary, because Wake County uses paper ballots, the runoff was instant but the count of the runoff votes didn’t occur until a week later.

Some naysayers object to any change in voting procedures. But, in this case, it’s hard to give their protests much credence. That’s because the instant runoff has so many advantages.

In Cary, only 9 percent of the people who voted for the third-place finisher failed to cast a second vote. So, on the bottom line, a great many more people participated in the selection of the winner. Had the two leading vote-getters run in a Nov. 6 runoff, turnout would have almost certainly been much lower.

There are financial benefits, too. The Wake County Board of Elections estimated that a town-wide runoff would have cost Cary an additional $65,000. A runoff just for the district in question would have cost $28,000. When two candidates meet for a statewide second primary that draws only 5 percent of eligible voters, it costs the state more than a million dollars. All that money is saved with an instant runoff.

The costs of campaigning are also reduced if there is no separate runoff three weeks later.

The General Assembly hit on a great idea with instant runoffs. If the Hendersonville vote next month is as successful as the Cary one, legislators should make this available statewide.