Runoff misery from New York City to Cary (NC) builds support for instant runoff voting

by Rob Richie // Published October 10, 2009

In 2007, Cary (NC) participated in an instant runoff voting pilot program for North Carolina cities established by a 2006 law. Although the state provided no funding to jurisdictions for the program, it allowed cities to use IRV and had the state board of elections develop procedures for doing IRV elections inexpensively.

Cary's city council voted to try IRV in 2007, and its voters overwhelmingly supported it. More than 70% of voters preferred IRV to their former runoff system in a North Carolina State exit poll, and a full poll conducted by Cary in 2008 affirmed an overwhelming preference for using IRV again rather than keeping the traditional runoff system -- indeed, on a scale of 1 to 9, with 1 being most opposed to 9 being most in favor, 67.1% indicated a 7 or higher (including 51% indicating the highest level of 9) while only 6.9% indicated 3 or less. Furthermore, the county's board of elections indicated its support for administering its new system, reporting that it saved more than $20,000 by avoiding a second-round runoff in one city council race.

Yet the instant runoff voting election had been closely decided, and the fact that the county had conducted a hand-count for the final instant runoff tally had made some candidates tense, particularly when subjected to relentless attacks on IRV by its opponents who prefer the status quo. In 2008 the state legislature voted to extend the IRV pilot through 2011, but the Cary council this year decided not to participate in the instant runoff pilot. Unfortunately its key vote was at a meeting held before it was clear that the state board of elections had developed a new method of administering the elections that did not require a hand-count.

On October 6th, Cary voted in the first round of its elections, with a November runoff to follow in case needed. Most Cary races were won without runoffs but as of today, one council race left the frontrunner with 49.97% -- meaning less than 0.04% short of a majority needed to avoid a runoff. If that result holds, the top two candidates will go back to fundraising and increased personal attacks, and the taxpayers will be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars for another vote in November. I suspect several Cary city councilors are wishing they'd paid more attention to the views of their residents. Certainly the other 2007 IRV pilot city Hendersonville can be pleased it voted to be in the pilot again, as it will have more than two candidates running for mayor and city council in elections that can be decided with IRV in one trip to the polls in November.

The result in Cary fall on the heels of controversy stirred up in New York City by a hugely expensive, citywide runoff last month that was marked by bitter attacks between candidates before the runoff and a turnout of less than 8% of registered Democrats deciding two nominees. The New York Times published a Page 1 story on the controversy, quoting CUNY historian John Mollenkopf on the fact that instant runoff voting would have made eminent sense for these elections. A New York Times blog by political reporter Sewell Chan quoted me and NYPIRG analyst Gene Russianoff in suggesting instant runoff voting.

Without IRV this year, less than 2% of New Yorkers will have voted for the runoff winners who are sure bets to win in the general election in November. These results, combined with the tab for taxpayers totaling some $15 million in election costs and millions more for extra public financing, are triggering strong interest in IRV among New York policymakers. FairVote has been helping stir debate, having circulated among many New Yorkers a comprehensive review of New York City voting method options last year. Former FairVote analyst Lynne Serpe published a New York Daily News commentary making the case for IRV on Election Day, and groups we reached out to like the Citizens Union are speaking up. The latest results certainly have a lot of people listening.

As a final point about runoff elections: the good thing about them is that they uphold the principle of majority rule. When you are electing only one person in a representative democracy, that is an important principle to respect - and indeed the great majority of presidents around the world are elected by majority runoffs, as demonstrated in our 2006 report. But runoffs can have disturbing disparities in turnout, either in the first round as in cities like St. Paul (MN) or in the final round as in all the federal primary runoffs that FairVote has exhaustively analyzed in the 1994-2008 period. One congressional primary runoff in Texas in 2008 experienced a startling 94% decline in turnout. Such results point to the value of instant runoff voting over runoff elections.