Not so instant

The voters may have spoken, but the State Board of Elections is still trying to figure out what they said. Although North Carolina's first stab at statewide instant-runoff voting should avoid the trouble and expense of a conventional runoff election, the winner in the 13-candidate N.C. Court of Appeals race won’t be decided until sometime after Nov. 29.

Instant runoff asks voters to indicate their first, second and third choices in specific judicial races on Election Day. The first-place votes are then tallied, with the second and third choices held in reserve in case no candidate achieves more than 50 percent of the total.

In this case, Cressie Thigpen (20.32 percent of the unofficial first-place vote) and Doug McCullough (15.20 percent) led the field. At this writing, the Board of Elections was expected to officially certify the election tallies on Nov. 23. The next step, slated for Nov. 29, is examining the second- and third-place votes for those two candidates to determine who ultimately proved more popular with the state's voters.

Each candidate’s second-place votes will be added to their first-place total. They’ll also get their third-place votes, provided their rival isn’t named second on the same ballot, explains Don Wright, chief counsel for the State Board.

The state Legislature had previously approved trying instant-runoff voting in a limited number of communities (including Hendersonville). But in August, N.C. Court of Appeals Judge James A. Wynn Jr. was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, leaving insufficient time to hold a special primary for his seat. In keeping with a recently approved law, North Carolina became the first state in the nation to apply the method statewide.

Instant-runoff voting was also used in Superior Court races in Buncombe, Cumberland and Rowan counties. In Buncombe County, Judge Marvin Pope (formerly on the District Court bench) was a clear winner in the first round, collecting 53.11 percent of the unofficial vote. Heather Whitaker Goldstein received 32.94 percent, and Diane K. McDonald took 13.94 percent.

Over the past 20 years, the turnout for runoff elections in North Carolina has ranged from 2.5 to 8 percent, according to an article in the Carolina Journal. That number contrasts sharply with the 44 percent who cast ballots on Nov. 2. The Journal (the monthly newspaper of the nonprofit John Locke Foundation) also quoted Gary Bartlett, executive director of the State Board of Elections, who estimated that the new method would cost "25 percent of what it would cost to hold a runoff election."

Instant-runoff voting does have its detractors, however, including Zagros Madjd-Sadjadi, an associate professor of economics at Winston-Salem State who co-authored a paper questioning the method’s constitutionality.

"IRV is the formula that keeps on taking," Madjd-Sadjadi told Xpress by phone. He believes the process hurts voters in several ways, but particularly by eliminating "true choice." If none of his three candidates makes it to the second round, for example, "All of a sudden, I'm disenfranchised," he said.

And the cost-saving argument is moot, Madjd-Sadjadi points out, because the state's judicial elections were previously won by the highest vote-getter, regardless of whether anyone polled more than 50 percent.

— Freelance reporter Nelda Holder can be reached at nfholder@gmail.com.

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