This fall North Carolina held the first statewide general election with instant runoff voting (IRV) in the nation’s history to fill federal judge Jim Wynn’s vacancy in on the Court of Appeals. Three Superior Court vacancies were also filled with instant runoff voting. The statewide vacancy election drew 13 candidates; the three Superior Court races each drew three candidates.
Before 2006, such judicial vacancies created between the primary and Labor Day of an election year were filled with a single election by plurality voting. With that system, voters cast one vote, and the candidate with the most votes won, no matter how low his or her percentage of the total vote. In 2004, a statewide vacancy to the North Carolina Supreme Court was won with 23%. IRV requires winners to demonstrate more support if they do no win a majority of first choice rankings. (See www.ncvotes123.com)
From what we know of these IRV elections, voters seemed to have handled instant runoff voting well, which is a credit to state and local elections officials. Anecdotal reports from election officials have been positive. For instance, Carteret County Board of Elections director Lindy Lewis said yesterday toward the end of Election Day: “"We haven't had a phone call from a precinct official or voter (regarding the instant runoff) which makes me feel good about that.” (See: http://www.enctoday.com/news/voting-84349-jdn-voters-holly.html)
Hard numbers from the elections seem to confirm that voters handled IRV and that will play an important role in ensuring winners are representative of voter intent. For example:
- Votes in the Court of Appeals vacancy election: There are more valid votes in the Court of Appeals vacancy race, with IRV, than in three of four other Court of Appeals races (and only slightly fewer votes than the fourth race). This would suggest that voters were not intimidated by the number of candidates or ballot design and that they did not make an unusual number of mistakes in marking their IRV ballots.
- Without IRV, the statewide race would have been won with 20%: The top vote-getters in the Court of Appeals race were Cressie Thigpen (with 20%) and Doug McCullough (with 15%). Under the previous system for vacancy elections, Judge Thigpen would have won outright, although fully 80% of voters did not select him as their first choice. Now we will find out whether more voters preferred Thigpen to McCullough or vice versa. Even though the final winner is unlikely to get 50% of the overall vote, he will need to get substantially more votes than under the previous system -- and far more votes than would have been cast in a December runoff.
- One of three Superior Court races will require an instant runoff: Of three Superior Court races with IRV, two (in Rowan and Buncombe counties) were won with a majority of the first round vote. The third race (in Cumberland County) has the first-choice leader with 36% and two candidates close behind. IRV will allow us to see which of the two frontrunners was favored by more voters.
It is important to note that the instant runoff tallies are not expected to take place until after the State Canvass on November 23rd. But the voters’ work is done; all that is needed is for election officials to have the time to add ballots from the defeated candidates to the totals of the runoff candidates based on whichever candidate is ranked as a second or third choice on each ballot.