Instant voting beats a runoff

Elena Everett and Lynice Williams // Published June 16, 2008 in The News Observer
Early voting has begun for the statewide runoff for the Democratic nominee for state commissioner of labor, but unfortunately most voters who cast a ballot at the May 6 primary will not return for the June 24 runoff.

Meanwhile, officials in counties across North Carolina are forced to shuffle funds to cover the nearly $5 million needed to administer this one runoff election.

On May 6, 1.2 million people voted for their preferred candidate in the labor commissioner race. If past trends hold, the final result in the runoff will be determined by fewer than 100,000 voters. And most of the cost will be borne by counties, which are already struggling to make ends meet.

You'd think we would have learned this lesson in 2004, when the runoff race for the Democratic nominee for superintendent of public instruction cost taxpayers $3.5 million even though less than 3 percent of North Carolina voters went to the polls.

There is a better way. It's called instant runoff voting.

Last year two successful tests of this simple but effective voting method were conducted in the state. Pilot-program elections, for town council seats in Cary and Hendersonville, proved that we're ready to eliminate costly, low-turnout runoffs by using instant runoff voting for statewide primaries and for local elections where three of more candidates are running for one seat. Recently the N.C. League of Women Voters unanimously voted to endorse instant runoff voting.

The concept is simple. In races where three or more candidates are running, you mark your first choice, then your second choice, and then your third choice. That's it!

If no one wins a majority of votes in the first round of counting, the race goes to into an "instant runoff" between the top two vote-getters. Voting for a second choice can never hurt your first choice, because your second choice is looked at only if your first choice doesn't make the runoff.

The benefits of this process are clear. Taxpayers save money. Voters save time. The results accommodate the preferences of all voters. And the second round of the campaign money chase is eliminated.

Instant runoff voting ensures a majority winner in one round of voting, allowing us to get on with the business of government. It has been endorsed by citizens and officials across North Carolina, and by editorial boards at the Winston-Salem Journal, the Fayetteville Observer, the Asheville Citizen-Times and the Wilmington Star News.

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

* Doesn't require new or elaborate technology. It can be accommodated using the standard ballots and machines we currently have. All that is required is a straightforward software update.

* Is easy to understand, even by new or infrequent voters. Exit polls in Cary and Hendersonville showed that more than 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.

* It doesn't harm minority communities -- just the opposite. Runoffs are not friendly to working people, and those who do vote in runoffs tend to be the whiter, more affluent voters. Instant runoff voting helps minority voters by capturing the preferences of all voters at one time, ensuring an equal voice in determining who wins.

As state legislators struggle during this short session to allocate tax dollars to programs that will benefit North Carolina, it's worth thinking about the effect that $5 million can make. Two million dollars to fully fund the Free Health Clinic Fund and $3 million for foreclosure protection would help thousands of people have access to health care and keep them in their own homes and not on the streets -- enabling more of our residents to live with dignity and security. In a time of diminishing revenues and increasing costs, we need to look at real, common-sense solutions.

Instant runoff voting is a proven system that would take a relatively small initial output of funds to enact and would save millions in the long run. Legislators should extend the pilot program, which just expired, and expand it to statewide primary elections. That will not only allow North Carolina to put our tax dollars to better use, but also move our election system into the 21st century.

(Elena Everett is Instant Runoff Voting director at FairVote N.C. Lynice Williams is executive director of N.C. Fair Share.)