Instant runoff voting is a practical and democratic solution to election pitfalls

Elena Everett and Rebecca Manning // Published June 11, 2008 in The Asheville Citizen-Times
If North Carolinians want a voice in determining the Democratic nominee for Labor Commissioner, they will need to return to the polls again June 24 for the runoff election — and unfortunately, most of them will not. The irony is that many working people do not return to the polls for runoffs, and for this particular race, it is their voice that should be most heard in determining the winner.

Meanwhile, officials in counties across the state are forced to shuffle funds to cover the nearly $5 million needed to administer the election. On May 6, 1,200,407 voted for their preferred candidate. If past trends hold, the runoff will be determined by fewer than 100,000 voters, or approximately 3 percent of eligible voters. Approximately 90 percent of the cost will be borne by counties, which are already struggling to make ends meet.

But this information is not new. In 2004, the runoff race for the Democratic nominee for superintendent of public instruction cost taxpayers $3.5 million — even though less than 3 percent of N.C. voters went to the polls.

The good news is that there is a better way: it’s called instant runoff voting. In 2007 North Carolina conducted overwhelmingly successful pilots of this simple but effective voting method. The pilot elections, for town council seats in Cary and Hendersonville, proved that we’re ready to take the next step toward broader practical applications of instant runoff voting. Instant runoff voting is a simple way to elect majority winners in one round of voting. In races where three or more candidates are running, you mark your first choice, as usual. You also have the option to indicate a second and third choice. That’s it!

Voting for a second choice can never hurt your first choice. Your second choice is looked at only if no one receives a majority of first choice votes, and if your first choice was not one of the top two vote-getters who advance to the “instant runoff.”

The benefits of this process are clear: money is saved, voters save time, the results accommodate the preferences of all voters, the spoiler effect that now allows a dark horse candidate to negatively impact the vote totals of candidates with similar, but stronger support is avoided, and the second round of the campaign money chase is eliminated. Instant runoff voting ensures majority winners in one higher turnout round of voting, allowing us to get on with the business of government.

As municipalities across America and countries around the world have proved, instant runoff voting:

* Does not require new or elaborate technology. It can be accommodated using standard paper ballots and optical scan machines – the same system now in place in most N.C. counties. All that is required is a straightforward software update, as being done in several other states.

* Voting integrity can be assured in the same way we now manage regular elections – through random security audits.

* Is easy to understand, even by new or infrequent voters. Exit polls conducted in Cary and Hendersonville showed that over 70 percent preferred it to separate runoffs

* It does not require elaborate retraining of Board of Elections staff. Simple training on how to instruct voters can be conducted during regular pre-election training with minimal effort.

* Instant runoff voting is used effectively by people of all races and education backgrounds. Since those who typically vote in runoffs tend to be whiter, more affluent voters, instant runoff elections help promote a more equal voice.

We live in difficult times. Revenues are shrinking, expenses are increasing and we do not know when or if things will get better. We need to find practical solutions to as many challenges as we can. Instant runoff voting is a proven system, we have the building blocks to put it in place, and it would take relatively little initial output of funds to enact.

If you would like to encourage North Carolina to move toward instant runoff voting, let your local legislators know you would like to see the pilot program, which just expired, extended permanently by the General Assembly, and expanded to statewide primary elections. Not only will you help North Carolina save money, you’ll be moving our state’s election system into the 21st century.

For more information about instant runoff voting and to sign a petition to bring it to North Carolina,

Elena Everett is the Director of Instant Runoff Voting, FairVote NC. She lives in Durham. Rebecca Manning is a member of the Board of Directors of FairVote NC and an Asheville resident.