No consensus on city vote change plan

No consensus on city vote change plan // Published April 2, 2009 in Herald Sun

FairVote North Carolina Executive Director Torrey Dixon is quoted in this article on a Durham hearing about the possibility of switching to instant runoff voting.

DURHAM -- Experts united in their dislike for the Durham County Board of Elections' proposal that the city elect its leaders through plurality votes nonetheless couldn't agree Wednesday on whether it should instead try a novel "instant runoff" system.

The chief drawback of such a system -- first tested in this state in 2007 by Cary and Hendersonville -- is that while it might work in this year's upcoming ward-based City Council election, it could cause problems in 2011 when the council seats up for grabs will be elected at large, Duke University professor Donald Horowitz said.

In elections like that, "it seems perfectly possible [for instant runoffs] to produce strange results," Horowitz told the 20 or so people who attended a League of Women Voters forum on the city's election system.

But advocates said instant runoffs -- which ask voters to indicate their second- and third-choice candidates, which come into play if no one wins an outright majority of first-choice ballots -- can produce more legitimate results than a plurality system while also helping communities avoid the costs of running two elections in a cycle like the city does now.

"Plurality would be the worst possible scenario," said Torrey Dixon, executive director of FairVote North Carolina, a group that supports the instant-runoff ballot. "It gives the possibility that a candidate detested by the overwhelming majority of voters can win."

Wednesday's forum came as the City Council prepares for a public hearing next Monday on the elections board's proposal that it do away with the primary the city holds in October every odd-numbered year to winnow the field of council and mayoral candidates.

The board and its director, Mike Ashe, say eliminating the primary and instituting election by plurality would save the city about $170,000 every election cycle.

The October primary is also a low-turnout affair, usually drawing only 11 to 15 percent of the city's registered voters to the polls, said Judie Burke, president of the League of Women Voters of North Carolina. The general election that follows it in November always draws better.

Few who spoke in Wednesday's forum signaled any favor for the plurality system. Its main drawback, as Dixon said, is that in fields with three or more candidates, the winner doesn't necessarily need 50 percent of the vote.

But Horowitz and others noted that instant-runoff elections can also yield plurality winners. Such an outcome is possible in situations where there are more than three candidates, or if a significant number of voters hold back some of their potential choices.

The council's upcoming hearing could set up a May 4 vote on whether to change the election system. One member who attended Wednesday's forum, Councilman Howard Clement, said he's already being lobbied by local activists.

"I'm getting a lot of calls from people telling me what I better do," he said, indicating in answer to a question that they're coming from "people representing" the leaders of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.