Voting inaction

// Published July 1, 2008 in News & Observer
Suppose, just suppose, North Carolina held a statewide election and no one voted. Just how different would that be from last Tuesday's runoff to determine the Democratic nominee for commissioner of labor, an election that cost taxpayers an estimated $4 million?

Just about 63,670 votes different. That was the total vote for the two candidates, out of 5.8 million registered voters and about 3.9 million voters eligible to participate in this particular party contest.

Worth it? Certainly to Mary Fant Donnan, who beat John C. Brooks by better than 2 to 1. (Donnan will face Republican incumbent Cherie Berry on Nov. 4). But worth it to the rest of us, at a cost to the state of roughly $50 per vote? Worth it when the initial go-round in this race, at the May 6 primary, attracted 1.2 million votes, 20 times as many as the runoff?

No, it was not.

The June 24 runoff was ridiculously expensive (no fault attaches to election officials, who were bound by law to conduct it) and the level of participation was a bad joke. Worse than a joke -- tiny turnouts in runoffs virtually invite interest groups to determine the result.

People often speak about "the high price of democracy," but this isn't what democracy's defenders usually have in mind. There's got to be a better way.

Right now a prime candidate is what's called instant runoff voting, referred to as IRV. It's a system that does away with separate-date runoffs by having voters mark their second and third choices on their first and only ballot. If no candidate gets the necessary margin at that election -- 40 percent in statewide primaries -- then the second and third choices are tallied to see which of the top two vote-getters has more total votes.

That's the winner. No separate runoff, and no $4 million taxpayer tab.

IRV has its pros and cons, as does any voting system. It saves money. It usually produces a winner with more votes than regular runoffs do. But it probably intimidates some voters, and it elevates electoral efficiency over electioneering. That is, IRV leaves no room for a mind- and vote-changing runoff campaign.

All this may be debated in the General Assembly in light of the labor commissioner runoff. (In this decade there have also been miserably attended runoffs for the Democratic nominee for superintendent of public instruction in 2004 and Republican labor commissioner nominee in 2000.) It's not at all clear that legislators would actually switch to IRV, which so far has been tried here only in a couple of town council races. But debate it they should.

And, if all cards are on the table, legislators should consider another option: cut back on the number of Council of State offices that are determined by election.

No, certainly not all 10 of them (that number includes the governor and lieutenant governor). But do we really need an elected labor commissioner? Superintendent of public instruction? Agriculture commissioner? Insurance commissioner?

Those posts seem excellent candidates for executive appointments by the governor, in the interest of carrying out the governor's policies and to avoid another electoral and fiscal fiasco like the June 24 runoff from which so many voters ran off.