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Expensive runoffs with dismal turnout: What's the solution?

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When Mary Fant Donnan won the Democratic nomination for labor commissioner in a statewide runoff last week, the cost to taxpayers was about $4 million. Given the tiny turnout, it amounted to about $50 a vote.

The reason for the high price tag: In most counties—Wake County, for example—there were no local primaries requiring runoffs, so the labor commissioner contest was the only race on the ballot. (Runoffs occur when no candidate receives at least 40 percent of the vote in the first round.)

Nonetheless, if even one statewide primary needs a runoff, all of the state's 3,000 polling places in each of the 100 counties must be opened and staffed just as in the first primary round.

And as Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, points out, it's not the state that pays to open them, it's the counties. So while the average cost per vote statewide last week was roughly $50 ($4 million divided by a total of about 75,000 votes cast for labor commissioner and a handful of local runoffs), in most counties where there were no local contests the cost per vote typically exceeded $70.

What's the alternative?

Democracy NC, a progressive reform group, supports "instant runoff voting," or IRV, as the antidote to expensive runoffs. With IRV, voters cast their ballots as usual in the first primary, but they can also mark a second choice (and a third and a fourth, etc.).

When the ballots are counted, if no candidate hits the 40 percent mark, all but the top two vote-getters are eliminated and the ballots are recounted. In the recount, though, if a voter's first-choice candidate didn't make it into the top two but her second-choice candidate did, that second-choice vote is added to the candidate's total "instantly." No need for an actual runoff weeks later and at great expense.

IRV has its opponents. Most prominent among them is Joyce McCloy, the Winston-Salem activist who founded the N.C. Coalition for Verified Voting. After the 2004 elections, the coalition lobbied successfully for a state law requiring that all touch-screen voting machines create a "verifiable" paper trail. Otherwise, its members said, someone could hack the touch-screen software and steal votes—and no one would know it.

McCloy, in e-mails circulated this week, warned that IRV might not be cheaper than holding actual runoffs, given the cost of developing tamper-proof IRV software (and training election officials on IRV practices).

Her solution: Don't have any runoffs. By her count, 42 states don't. Or else, lower the threshold below 40 percent to make runoffs less frequent. Or stop electing such offices as labor commissioner and superintendent of public instruction, where recent runoff primaries have produced dismal turnouts, and make them gubernatorial appointees instead.

To that extent, she and Hall might agree.

"There's got to be a better way than these embarrassing statewide runoff elections," Hall says, "either by filling some of the Council of State positions by gubernatorial appointment, nominating others with a different threshold for victory, using IRV, or something."

A legislative committee in the House was expected to discuss the IRV issue today in connection with an omnibus elections-law funding bill. Last year, Cary and Hendersonville conducted local elections using the IRV method under a pilot-program law that will expire this year unless the General Assembly extends it.

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