Bob Hall on Instant Runoff Voting

By Fiona Morgan
Published October 3rd 2007 in Independent Weekly
On Oct. 9, Cary voters will cast ballots that look different from any they've seen before. Cary is the first town in the Triangle to test Instant Runoff Voting, a system designed to reduce the cost of runoff elections and ensure more citizens' voices are heard. Other U.S. cities have used IRV (most notably San Francisco), but it's new in North Carolina, thanks to a bill passed last year by the legislature authorizing up to 10 cities and 10 counties to participate in a pilot program.

The new system has its critics. The N.C. Coalition for Verified Voting opposes IRV, saying it is confusing to voters, more complicated to count and requires potentially expensive voter education campaigns.

Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, has long advocated for Instant Runoff Voting. He's participating with the Wake County Board of Elections, the League of Women Voters and a national group called Fair Vote to educate Cary voters about IRV.

INDEPENDENT: How does IRV work?

BOB HALL: It's pretty simple: You go in and you get the ballot and it has three columns. You mark your first choice—who you want to win—in the first column; if you have a backup you can mark your second and third choices. On Election Night, those first-choice votes are counted just as they would be in a normal election. If nobody gets a majority, then the top two vote-getters go into a runoff, just like in a normal election.

It's really important for people to know that their first choice is never harmed by them making a second choice. If their first choice is in the runoff, that's where their vote stays; their second and third choices are never even looked at. If your first choice is eliminated in the first round, that choice is lost, so it can't be harmed in the second round. Your vote would go to the runoff candidate that you ranked second.

In the Cary election, there are three people running for one seat in most of the slots. It may be that people will have only one person they really like and there may be another person they really don't like, so it would be wise for them to pick a second choice if they have a second choice.

What happens if I mark the same candidate in the first, second and third choice position?

It would be the same as if you made a first choice and didn't make a second or third choice. If that candidate survives the runoff, or if they even win, then that's great. Your vote will stay with that first choice. If they're eliminated, your second and third choice is not going to help them.

How much money is IRV expected to save?

About $62,000. That's what the Town of Cary would have had to reimburse the county if they had to hold a second election, open all 36 precincts, print ballots, pay staff and so on. All elections are paid for by local governments. When we have a statewide runoff, something like the Democratic nominee for Superintendent of Public Instruction which we had in 2004, every polling place in the state had to open for a runoff election. That cost $3.5 million, and there was about a 3 percent turnout. This way everybody who shows up on Election Day will have their say the first time around.

Are Wake County's voting machines compatible with IRV?

Yes. In Wake County, paper ballots are read by an optical scanner that tabulates the votes. They are completely compatible and able to handle the IRV ballots. The machines are programmed to read the first column; they're not reading all three columns at one time. The Board of Election is not planning to use the machines if it goes to Round Two.

In North Carolina, an audit is done with a selected number of precincts. A hand count is compared to a machine count. That happens whether it's IRV or some other method.

Is there any possibility that, even with the IRV system, there could be an inconclusive result?

There could be a tie, just as there could be in any runoff election. But that's very rare.

What sort of public education campaign has there been to let Cary voters know about this new system?

The Wake County Board of Elections sent a mailing to all households with voters in Cary with a sample of how the ballot will look and how you fill it in. They've done press releases that have been picked up in some of the media. The Town of Cary has featured the ballot information as the front page of the bulletin in the utility bills that go to Cary residents, and they've also put it on a Web site and put it on their cable television show.

How much has that cost?

Actually, the Town of Cary is not investing any new money in this; they only stand to save money. The Wake County Board of Elections is using about $9,000 in money from their existing budget for routine mailings. That's really the only expense.

Some critics of IRV have pointed out that other local governments in North Carolina declined to participate in IRV this election. Why?

I think the two big reasons are: One, it involves change, and they don't like to volunteer for change. Two, I think there was a lot of fear that was spread about this being very confusing. If you tell people that voters won't know what to do, then it sounds controversial, and why would you want to do that?

That fear was generated by people who are afraid this is some kind of trick to get more machines involved in elections, which is just not the case. Even though nationally and locally people are interested in making sure the integrity of the election system is sound and that there's a paper trail, for whatever reason, there's a small handful of people who are intent on believing this is a trick, so they're out to trash it any way they can.

Do you expect things will go smoothly on Election Day in Cary?

Yes. It is new, though, so we do want people to be aware of what it is and be prepared. From the voter's point of view, the important thing is that their votes are going to get counted.

For more information about IRV, visit or call the Wake County Board of Elections at 856-6240. If you would like to volunteer to answer questions about IRV at Cary polling places on Election Day, call the number above.