Time has run out on runoffs

// Published June 25, 2008 in Wilmington Star News
 In case you missed it, North Carolina counties spent upward of $5 million Tuesday so 63,662 people (1.87 percent of the state's registered voters) could pick the Democratic candidate for Labor Commissioner.

Four candidates finished in a dead heat after the May 6 primary, which saw 1,200,407 people cast a vote in the race. Mary Fant Donnan was the top vote-getter in May with 27.54 percent. Former Labor Commissioner John S. Brooks netted 38,000 fewer votes to finish with 24.36 percent, and decided to call for the runoff. The two other Democratic candidates threw their support behind Donnan, and that may have helped account for her win Tuesday in which she garnered 68 percent of the vote this time round.

Donnan will face the Republican, incumbent Cherie Berry, in the November general election.

No one would question the importance of the Labor Commissioner job. Other than having her name and photograph posted on 20,000 public elevators across the state -- which in Berry's case inspired a song by Triangle area songwriter Dan Bryk . . . really -- the commissioner's department is responsible for safety oversight in vulnerable places like poultry plants and risky construction areas.

Currently North Carolina leads the nation in heat-related fatalities among farmworkers. The specter of the 1991 Hamlet chicken plant fire that killed 25 workers trapped behind locked fire doors stills hangs over the state. The plant had not been inspected in 11 years.

It's unquestionably an important position, but there has to be a better way to settle statewide primaries. Even using a conservative estimate, it likely cost at least $50 to accommodate each vote cast Tuesday. There was no other statewide race and only two other runoffs with state implications were held -- N.C. Senate District 5 (Wayne, Pitt and Wilson counties), and N.C. House District 67 (Montgomery, Stanly and Union counties).

While some counties had to hold elections for local runoffs, Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender could have sat this one out - as most voters did - and saved some money. This one almost became absurd with its lack of participation.

In our three counties, the numbers were underwhelming. Percentage of registered voters who cast ballots -- Brunswick, 0.79 percent; New Hanover, 1.19 percent; Pender 1.36 percent. In New Hanover, the ninth largest county in the state, with more than 180,000 people, election workers in six precincts saw a single-digit turnout. The poor lonely workers at Federal Point 7 (Ashley High School) had one voter. Wilmington 31 (Alderman Elementary) and Masonboro 2 (Parsley Elementary) tied in a heated battle for first place with 57 voters each.

And this is at a time when counties are cash-strapped, bridges are in disrepair and critical services are being underfunded.

It's not fair to blame candidates who call for runoffs. It's their right. Under North Carolina law, if the first-place candidate does not get at least 40 percent of the vote, the second-place candidate can request a runoff between the top two finishers. And in Brooks' case, he trailed Donnan by just a couple of percentage points.

It's the law that needs to be changed.

Do we advance a fair voting process with a system that saw 1.2 million voters casting a ballot but then the race being ultimately decided by fewer than 64,000? Sure, the other 1 million or so who chose to skip the runoff were not prevented from voting Tuesday. But one wonders how many had the time to get by their precinct to cast one vote or, more important, how many people knew there was an election at all.

Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina, a group that calls itself non-partisan and committed to "a more vital democracy," told the Associated Press, "It would have made sense to just identify your choice and backup choice" in the May 6 primary. "More people would have done that than (will) show up at the polls" for the runoff.

Going into Tuesday's runoff, Gary Bartlett, executive director of the State Board of Elections, expected a low turnout but was hoping to at least avoid a record low.

But that's exactly what he got -- the 1.89 percent turnout was even more sparse than the previous low for a statewide runoff, 2.5 percent in the 2000 Republican primary runoff for, you guessed it, labor commissioner.

Runoff alternatives need to be carefully considered. Although the General Assembly passed a law allowing county boards of election to test so-called instant runoff voting, only two communities, Cary and Hendersonville, have tried it. Critics of the system claim it will not always produce a majority winner and that the state's current voting technology cannot accommodate it. It might well take a while to establish such a process.

But whether the alternative is instant runoff voting, lowering the percentage of the vote needed for a victory, or simply granting the win to the person who gets the most votes, a system that produces a less-than 2 percent turnout is not working.

There needs to be a better method put in place before the turnout gets even lower.

What if we held an election, and nobody came?