Labor commissioner runoff cost $55 a vote

// Published June 26, 2008 in Charlotte Observer
The bills aren't paid yet, but Tuesday's runoff for state labor commissioner probably cost between $3.5 million and $5 million – including $400,000 or so in Mecklenburg County.

Unofficial totals show 63,662 votes in the race – less than 2 percent of the state's nearly 4 million voters. That means the statewide vote to decide whether the Democrats' nominee would be Mary Fant Donnan or John Brooks cost taxpayers about $55 per vote. In Mecklenburg, with a turnout of 0.8 percent, the cost nay top $120 per voter. That's a very expensive exercise in democracy.

There's a better way to do it: instant runoff voting.

Here's the way runoffs work now. Under state law, the runner-up may request a runoff if no candidate receives more than 40 percent of the vote. In the May 6 labor commissioner primary, Ms. Donnan received 27.5 percent of the total. Mr. Brooks, with 24.4 percent, came in second and called for a runoff.

That meant the entire statewide election apparatus had to kick in. Whether there's one contest on the ballot or 100, some things still must be done. Mecklenburg elections director Michael Dickerson listed some of them: open all the polling places (and pay rent for some); pay poll workers and other elections officials; program, deliver and pick up voting machines.

In this election, workers at some polls were lonelier than TV's Maytag repairman. At only four of Mecklenburg's 195 precincts did turnout top 2 percent. In 44 precincts the turnout didn't reach double digits. In one precinct, a single voter showed up.

A second vote wouldn't be needed under an instant runoff system. Here's how it would work. Instead of voting for just one candidate, a voter would cast a ballot that ranked the candidates: first choice, second choice, third choice. If nobody won the election outright, elections officials would see which of the top two candidates did best among the voters whose top choice was eliminated and add on those votes.

Instant runoff voting is not some alien notion. Voters in Cary and Hendersonville are using it in municipal elections. Several states use it for overseas and out-of-state military voters. San Francisco, Minneapolis and Burlington, Vt., are using it.

An additional advantage is that it involves more voters in choosing the winner. Ms. Donnan led the first primary with 330,581 votes. Because only 63,662 voters turned out for the runoff, a mere 32,000 voters could have picked the winner. That outcome would hardly reflect the will of the people.