North Carolina uses IRV for the first time in a statewide election

by Chris Marchsteiner // Published September 1, 2010

North Carolina will make history November 2 as the first state to use instant runoff voting (IRV) in a statewide election in the modern era. As reported in The Times-News, thirteen candidates have filed to run in the race to fill a vacancy on the state Court of Appeals. Additionally, three counties in the state will be using IRV to fill vacancies in three Superior Court races.

After a messy Supreme Court vacancy election in 2004 with eight candidates, the state legislature decided it was time for change when the winner received less than 25% of the vote under plurality rules. This meant that the newly appointed judge would hold an eight-year term despite the fact that 75% of the state did not vote for him. Worse, his victory was almost certainly tied to fiercely partisan campaigning. While two other prominent Republicans in the campaign refused to receive endorsements from the Republican Party because of their belief in judicial impartialness, the winner of the race, Paul Newby, campaigned as an unabashed conservative, accepting the Republican endorsement over fellow candidate Howard Manning Jr., who refused. Rachel Lea Hunter, another Republican candidate, said that the endorsement violated the spirit of the nonpartisan judicial race and claimed that the Republican Party had “vilified” her.

Now, under state law, vacancies in the Superior Court, Court of Appeals, and Supreme Court are filled through elections using IRV. 

Voters will be able to rank their top three choices. If there is no clear majority winner within the first choices, the top two candidates receive the votes of any voter who did not vote for them but had them ranked as their second or third choice. By doing this, the winner of the election will be the candidate with majority support among voters who ranked at least as one of the two finalists—meaning a candidate who has enough broad appeal to earn second and third choices and enough core support to be one of the top two vote-getters in the plurality contest. The North Carolina Board of Elections will be working diligently over the next two months to ensure that voters have no questions about the new system.

This is not the first time IRV has been used in North Carolina.  The town of Cary—a growing community of more than 100,000 people—used the IRV rules in 2007 to elect the mayor and city council members. Exit polls showed that a striking 95% of voters said they understood IRV “well or fairly well” and 72% preferred the system to voting for a single candidate. In a subsequent town survey, voters were ten times more likely to rate IRV well than poorly. Hendersonville had similar success in city council elections in 2007 and 2009, and its city council has indicated it wants to make the change a permanent one.

Although the voters tend to like IRV and voting with it, there are detractors who insist that it is too confusing or too costly. However, North Carolina already employs runoff elections in state and federal primaries. Asking the voters to come to the ballot box a second time costs several million dollars while typically resulting in much lower voter turnout than before—in 2008, for example, turnout in the statewide runoff was approximately 20 times smaller than in the first round.  In this race among thirteen candidates, a runoff election would have been inevitable. And despite the necessary voter education that introducing a new election system entails, IRV has repeatedly proven simple enough for the vast majority of voters to grasp. 

This election’s successful execution will be important in determining the future of IRV in North Carolina. There will be challenges ahead, if only in the short term: The high number of candidates, the low-profile nature of judicial elections, and the voting equipment in North Carolina that cannot fully tally IRV ballots. Nevertheless, the payoff this year will be more representative outcomes for important judicial positions at a time when too many candidates are winning key races without a clear majority victory—victories with 23% like that of Ben Quayle in an Arizona congressional primary last month.  His victory was aided by an ad calling Barack Obama the worst president in history, demonstrating the “low road” style of politics that plurality voting engenders.   

Long-term, North Carolina will have opportunities to try IRV again. A 2008 law establishes that up to 10 cities can use IRV for city elections, and this year’s vote may provide a roadmap for a broader use of IRV for primary elections in 2012.

FairVote will be following events closely as they unfold, so check back for updates throughout the fall.

For more information on IRV in North Carolina, see:

* Video from the North Carolina Center for Voter Education: http://archive.fairvote.org/?page=2284

* Democracy North Carolina: http://www.democracy-nc.org/downloads/IRV.pdf

* Wake County report on 2007 election administration: http://archive.fairvote.org/?page=2543

* Cathy Le's recent blog on plurality voting: Is  23% enough to be an Arizona Congressman? Non-majority rules in August 25 primaries in Arizona, Florida and Vermont