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Consider the voters -- and the taxpayers

// Published March 5, 2009 in Wilmington Star News

Wilmington's newest city council member has an idea well worth considering - and tweaking just a bit. Margaret Haynes proposes moving the general election to November and, even better, getting rid of the runoff election process.

One benefit would be to save money - $70,000 or more, city officials estimate. With Wilmington facing a lean budget already, like other local governments and just about everyone else, now is a good time to make a change for the better.

But rather than an automatic win for the top three vote-getters in what can be a long list of candidates, the city council ought to consider a more democratic alternative: the instant runoff.

The system has been used with some success in other cities, including Cary. Instead of a separate runoff election for candidates who don't get enough votes to win a seat on the first ballot, voters would rank candidates in order of preference.

The unofficial winners are known the same night, and the results more accurately reflect the preferences of the voters than a simple plurality system such as Haynes proposes.

Recent example: Burlington, Vt., used the instant runoff this week to decide a four-way mayoral race. The leading vote-getter received only about one-third of the vote, according to Fair Vote, an organization that advocates the instant runoff system. When the instant runoff was tallied, the initial second-place finisher wound up with more votes.

Wilmington's council races sometimes attract more than 20 candidates for three council seats. Under the existing runoff system, it isn't unusual to have at least one and sometimes two candidates finish without enough votes to avoid a runoff. Turnout often is less than 30 percent for the October general election; far fewer voters bother to show up for a November runoff.

Three city council seats and the mayor's office will be on the ballot this fall. There's still plenty of time to change the election process before voters head to the polls.

Memo to the council: vote yes.