Instant Runoff Vote
In the 2010 midterm election, North Carolina was faced with an unusual situation in a judicial election, where 13 candidates would be on the general election ballot for a single office. Situations like this happen all the time in primaries, and in fact the purpose of the primaries is to winnow the field down to two candidates for the general election.
But sometimes the primaries don't accomplish that (because no candidate gets over the threshold percentage of votes), and, rarely, as in 2010, offices become vacant after the primaries. In those cases the law requires a runoff primary, which is a huge expense for the state because a second election is just as expensive as the first, even if it is for a single office. In the 2010 primary season, there had to be a separate runoff primary for a single Democratic office -- Senator -- so the election machinery had to be ramped up in full: the Republican judges and workers had to show up even though none of their candidates were involved.
Cooler heads have prevailed, and for the 2010 general election that multi-candidate judicial race was decided at a single election. Here's how the system works:
The ballot lists all of the names of the candidates three times: first in a column for the voters to select their favorite candidate, then in a second identical column for the one they would prefer if their first choice wasn't selected, then a third column for their third choice, given that neither their first nor second choice made it. This is basically what you would do in a runoff primary, you're just doing it all at once.
Come election day, the Board of Elections in Raleigh tallies all the votes in Column 1 -- the voters' first choice -- and ranks them top to bottem in number of votes. If the top vote-getter gets more than 50% of the votes, the election is over. That's very unlikely in a 13-candidate race, and in that case the BOE begins calculating the instant runoff. What they do is take the top two vote-getters into the instant runoff, just as would happen in a primary, but carry out the voting using the votes already cast in columns 2 and 3.
polkdemocrats.com doesn't know (or much care) the exact mechanism the BOE uses to calculate the runoff, but in other jurisdictions using the system they start with the low vote-getter, checking how many people voting that person had column 2 votes for either of the top two, and adding those to the column 1 totals. Then they go to the next lowest vote-getter, add those votes, then see if there are enough votes for either of the runoff candidates to get over 50%. And so on until each of the losing candidates in column 1 has their column 2 votes tallied. If after that neither of the runoff candidates still has 50%, then the BOE goes to column 3 and repeats the whole procedure. That should produce a winner.
We presume that the BOE in its august attention to duty had a platoon of statisticians working out the probabilities and know that three times around the track is a great plenty.
Assuming that we ultimately have a winner in this 2010 race (we don't know yet), is the instant runoff a good idea?
Yes. Anything that saves the taxpayers $3 million to avoid a runoff primary for a race nobody cares about or will vote in is a good thing. It introduces a lot of complexity in the last thing anybody wants complexity introduced to, and surely mistakes at the polls were made aplenty. For example, people voting for their candidate in all three columns, thinking -- wrongly -- that doing so meant extra votes for their favorite. The only votes counted in columns 2 and 3 are those of voters whose favorite LOST in the first round. If your candidate makes it to the runoff, your votes in columns 2 and 3 aren't counted at all; if your candidate doesn't make it, your only votes in columns 2 and 3 that are counted are those for one of the two candidates that did.
We must take the mistakes and under-voting as a valid tradeoff for an actual runoff election.
Something else we must take is the philosophical one of the possibility that a decisive but not majority winner in the first round could lose in the runoff. That in fact happened this year in the City of Oakland California, which also uses this system. That could also happen in an actual runoff, of course, so count polkdemocrats.com as a big supporter of the system.
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