December 6, 2010
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jrowe [at] fairvote.org
Cumberland County Instant Runoff Election Results
In a closely contested election featuring the use of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), Claire Hill has defeated Robert Hasty, Jr. in the race for the District 12A North Carolina Superior Court seat in Cumberland County. This important election is among the first in North Carolina history in which IRV has been used.
Below are some key facts about the election.
Why instant runoff voting was used
In 2006, North Carolina adopted a law establishing that instant runoff voting would be used to fill judicial vacancies created between the May primary and early September of election years where a traditional two-round election system would be costly and result in low turnout in one round. Before 2006, such vacancies were filled in a single election where voters cast only one vote. In 2004, the winner in an eight-candidate statewide race for the North Carolina Supreme Court earned only 23%.
This year, four judicial vacancy elections were created in the proscribed time period: one for the statewide Court of Appeals, for which 13 candidates ran, and three for Superior Court positions, each with three candidates.
What instant runoff voting is
On November 2, voters in these elections had the opportunity to rank their 1st, 2nd and 3rd choices for the position. IRV simulates a traditional runoff. If a candidate wins a majority of 1st choices, that candidate is elected. If not, all but the top two candidates are eliminated, and each ballot is counted one for whichever runoff candidate is ranked higher on that ballot. The candidate who is ranked ahead of the other candidate on more ballots is elected, just as the candidate with more votes in a traditional runoff is declared the winner.
No candidate came close to winning a majority of the 1st choice vote in either the statewide race or the Superior Court election in Cumberland County. The races proceeded to an instant runoff, with the top two candidates advancing and all others eliminated. The instant runoff started on November 29, after the statewide canvass of ballots was completed.
Results in Superior Court 12A Race (Cumberland County)
- After 1st choices were counted, the vote was split closely among the three candidates in the race. Robert Hasty, Jr. received 36%, Claire Hill received 33%, and Stephen C. Stokes received 31%.
- Because no candidate received a majority of 1st choices, the race proceeded to an instant runoff. Stokes, the last-place candidate, was eliminated. Ballots ranking Stokes 1st were then counted instead for the candidate ranked 2nd on those ballots.
- After these ballots had been added to the candidates’ totals, Hill emerged as the winner with 51% of the final-round vote. This means that among voters who expressed a preference between the top two candidates, 51% preferred Hill.
Key facts and their implications
- “Drop-off” in the race was 12%, meaning that 88% of voters who indicated a 1st choice in the race had their ballot count in the final round. In this case, the drop-off reflected the percentage of voters who chose to rank Stephen Stokes 1st and no other candidate 2nd or 3rd. Because these voters chose to rank only one candidate, their ballot could not be counted for another candidate once Stokes had been eliminated. Had these voters chosen a second choice, their ballot would have been counted for that candidate in the final round.
- The drop-off probably had a negligible impact on the outcome of the election. Both Hill and Stokes were endorsed by the same party, and it is likely that most of the drop-off voters who ranked Stokes 1st would have listed Hill as their 2nd choice if they had chosen one. Since Hill won the election even without the support of these voters, a smaller drop-off would likely have meant a larger margin of victory for the winning candidate.
- Voter participation in the race was higher than it would have been had a traditional runoff been used to fill the 12A vacancy. Traditional runoff elections are typically poorly attended, both in North Carolina and elsewhere – particularly in late November or December after a major November general election. Statewide, turnout in primary election runoffs typically declines sharply in North Carolina. For example, in 2008, just 63,910 voters participated in the Democratic primary runoff for Commissioner of Labor, as opposed to 1,200,407 voters in the first round in May. Overall, statewide turnout for the November 2010 election was 44% of voters, but runoff turnout almost certainly would have been in the single digits.
- An illustrative recent example of the pitfalls of separate runoff elections comes from the state of Georgia, which held a statewide runoff for a judicial position this December. Turnout in that race was less than 10%, just a fraction of turnout for the general election that preceded it. By contrast, IRV allowed North Carolina to fill the 12A vacancy in a single, high-turnout general election.
- Runoffs are also costly to taxpayers: In Georgia, the estimated cost of the statewide runoff was $4 million. Costs in North Carolina would have been comparable. Runoffs also exacerbate campaign finance demands, forcing candidates to raise and spend lots of money quickly.
- As a tool for conducting vacancy elections, IRV showed that it provides a more accurate expression of voters’ preferences than the previous system. (The old system, in which the candidate with a simple plurality of votes won, became a target of public scrutiny when it allowed candidates with a very small percentage of the vote to win). Under the old system, Hasty’s 36% of the first-round total would have been enough for an outright victory. This year, however, the use of IRV allowed more voters to express a preference between the two front-runners. The result was that 51% of voters who expressed a preference between the top two candidates preferred Hill to Hasty. This would indicate that Hill in fact had more widespread support than Hasty, but that some of those backers also chose Stokes as a 1st choice. The current IRV method of filling judicial vacancies allows this support to be taken into account, rather than simply awarding the election to the candidate with the highest plurality of votes cast.
The District 12A Superior Court race demonstrated the advantages of IRV over plurality voting and potential December runoff elections as a method of conducting judicial vacancy elections. As an alternative to separate runoff elections, IRV has the benefit of allowing for much higher voter turnout and participation than is typical of December runoffs. As an alternative to the former plurality system, IRV reduces the occurrence of low-plurality winners by providing a more comprehensive reflection of voters’ preferences between candidates. Taken together, these benefits suggest that IRV is the best available method of filling judicial vacancies that occur too late for the normal primary schedule.
Results in the statewide Court of Appeals race are expected this week. FairVote tracks these and other IRV elections around the country as part of its work on election analysis and reform. For more information, contact FairVote’s Toby Rowe or Rob Richie at (301) 270-4616 or firstname.lastname@example.org.