Instant runoff worth a try

Published May 22nd 2005 in Wilmington Star News (NC)
North Carolina elections could become saner, cheaper, easier and more democratic if the state Senate agrees with the House to let 10 counties experiment with "instant runoffs."

Voters and candidates would be spared a second election if no candidate won at least 40 percent of the vote.

Instead, voters who faced a list of candidates would rank them in order of preference. If nobody won 40 percent, the board of elections would, in effect, hold a runoff between the top two candidates. Each would get the votes of the people who ranked them second.

The winner would represent the choice of a majority of voters, even if he or she wasn't their first choice.

The county would be spared the cost of another election.

Voters would be spared the chore of going to the polls again, often to cast ballots in only one race.

Candidates would be spared the expense of another election – an expense that now requires them to beg for more money from contributors who might want something in return.

It isn't as if runoffs are rare. Legislative researchers count 35 runoffs since 1990.

In 17 of them, the front-runner lost. In 34 of them, turnout was lower – usually far lower – than in the first round. Results in low turnout races can turn more on organization or red-hot emotions than on the thoughtful choices of the majority of voters.

The House bill would allow 10 counties to volunteer to try instant runoffs. It's hard to think of a good reason why they shouldn't be allowed to.

This isn't a crazy or overly complicated idea. Some businesses and universities already use it. Cities and states are taking the plunge.

Apparently the water's fine.