North Carolina’s primary election on May 8 saw a high turnout, with nearly three times as many voters showing up as in 2010’s primary.
Unfortunately, the primary runoff elections on Tuesday will likely drop to single digit turnout – yet cost N.C. taxpayers well over $4 million. Most of the winners of the 15 runoffs for statewide, congressional and legislative primaries likely will receive fewer votes than their races’ losers received in May.
Such declines in turnout are typical. Last year, FairVote released a report titled “Federal Primary Election Runoffs and Voter Turnout Decline, 1994-2010” that found voter turnout declined in 141 of the last 146 regularly scheduled federal primary runoffs. Both parties suffered equally, with an average decline of 36 percent in Democratic runoffs and 33 percent in Republican runoffs.
There is value in requiring nominees to have substantial support in their party – which in North Carolina, means earning at least 40 percent of votes. Fortunately, there’s a better way to achieve that goal. North Carolina can upgrade its traditional approach with instant runoff voting (IRV). Backed by President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain and used before in North Carolina, IRV determines a winner in one efficient election.
Voters gain the option to rank three candidates in order of preference rather than select only one candidate. If no candidate earns at least 40 percent of first choice votes, the two candidates with the most votes would advance. If your first choice is one of those candidates, your vote stays with that candidate. If your first choice is not one of those candidates, your vote is added to the totals of the runoff candidate you ranked highest on your ballot. That’s all there is to it.
IRV is used in countless private organizations because it is recommended in Robert’s Rules of Order. It has been adopted to replace two rounds of voting in cities in California, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina and Tennessee.
North Carolina has had several IRV elections, and three exit polls show voters overwhelmingly preferred it to returning to the polls for a runoff. Unfortunately, the state’s voting equipment currently requires “workarounds” that delay the count. Once North Carolina has optical scan equipment like others have, it would have an IRV tally to share on election night along with other results.
IRV has several advantages:
• Taxpayers save time and money. Traditional runoffs are costly. Remarkably, N.C. legislators this year declined to provide $664,000 in state election funds needed to trigger more than $4 million in federal money to help our elections run smoothly. In light of that reasoning, it’s hard to justify forcing counties to pay for a low turnout runoff election that will cost millions of dollars to administer. Reducing the number of election days when all polling places must be open would allow administrators to spend their resources more efficiently.
• Candidates are less likely to be indebted to special-interest contributors. Right now, candidates often fight to make the runoff and then find their campaigns strapped for cash, triggering a scramble for more money that has the potential for ethical abuses.
• All votes will count and the winner gets a majority. By combining the two rounds of the runoff, IRV ensures maximum turnout in one election.
• If IRV were adopted for November elections, third-party supporters could vote their true preference without worrying about spoiling the chance for success of the candidate they prefer between the two most likely winners. North Carolina likely would then finally get rid of its terrible ballot access laws.
A logical place to use IRV is in the primaries for executive branch offices that have so often produced the need for runoffs (e.g., choosing the Republican nominee for Secretary of State or Democratic nominee for Commissioner of Labor). When the state upgrades equipment, it should require readiness to run IRV elections so that we can consider it as an alternative to statewide runoffs.
We hope you vote Tuesday – and soon are able to rank your choices in a single efficient IRV election.