Raleigh News and Observer 

N.C. Could Avoid Costly Runoff Elections
by Caleb Kleppner
May 10, 2000

North Carolina taxpayers are about to pay for an expensive and needless election that more than 90 percent of eligible voters will probably sit out. That's because no candidate managed 40 percent of the vote in the Republican primaries for state agriculture commissioner and labor commissioner, so now the top two candidates in these races will square off in runoffs on May 30.

The goal of a runoff is laudable: to produce a primary winner with significant support. But putting on this election will cost taxpayers an estimated $3.5 million, not to mention the additional funds the candidates will raise, and because few voters perceive the importance of these races, most will stay home on Election Day.

If you think there must be a cheaper and more efficient way to nominate candidates with serious support, you're right.

It's called an instant runoff, and it achieves the goal of the runoff in a single election.

Last year, the General Assembly created the Election Law Revision Commission, and it is already studying this sensible reform.

The instant runoff saves the taxpayers the cost of the second election. It's easier for voters, who only have to turn out once, and it's easier for candidates, who only have to raise funds and campaign in one election.

It's also quite simple.

When voters go to the polls, they cast a vote for their favorite candidate. At the same time they also specify their runoff choices.

If their favorite candidate gets eliminated, they get to support their next favorite in the "instant" runoff. Voters specify these choices by ranking candidates in order of choice: first choice, second choice, third choice.

To take a hypothetical example, here's how it might have worked in the Republican gubernatorial primary among former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, state Rep. Leo Daughtry and former state Rep. Chuck Neely if Vinroot hadn't surpassed the 40 percent-of-the-vote hurdle needed to avoid a runoff (in the actual election, Vinroot won 45 percent).

If no one receives more than 40 percent of the first choices, the instant runoff takes place. The candidate with the fewest votes, Neely, is eliminated, just as in a regular runoff.

Vinroot and Daughtry supporters get to continue to support their favorite candidate, and Neely supporters can also back their runoff choice, either Vinroot or Daughtry.

In the instant runoff, each voter's ballot counts for whichever candidate -- Vinroot or Daughtry -- was ranked higher on the ballot. The key to the instant runoff is that the rankings allow all voters, regardless of whom they supported as a first choice, to express a preference between Vinroot and Daughtry. This produces a majority winner in a single election.

In addition to saving taxpayers millions of dollars in election costs, the instant runoff has three other important benefits:

It reduces negative campaigning and promotes reaching out to more voters, because candidates know that winning may require being the runoff choice of their opponents' supporters.
  • It fulfills one goal of campaign finance reform, because candidates don't need to raise more money for a second election.
  • It maximizes voter turnout, since voters don't have to return to the polls for special runoff elections.

    Because of these benefits, legislation for instant runoffs has recently been introduced in five states and passed in two localities. A charter review commission in Austin, Texas, supported the use of instant runoffs in local elections, and the City Council there may place a charter amendment for them on the ballot in November.

    In 1996, the runoff in the North Carolina Democratic primary for secretary of state cost taxpayers $5 million, and 95 percent of eligible voters chose not to vote.

    Let's hope the legislature makes this year's runoff primary the last time the state wastes time and money on an unnecessary election.