Buncombe County voters will elect 13 judges this fall from a field of 34 candidates; one late-breaking statewide race has 13 people vying for a single seat. To help deal with the logjam, the state will employ instant-runoff voting in that contest, a first for North Carolina. The method will also be used in three counties (including Buncombe) where there are local judicial races involving more than two contenders.
Rather than selecting one candidate per race, voters are asked to indicate their first, second and third choices. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first-place votes, the second and third choices will be factored in to determine the winner.
This unexpected change, however, has created a complicated situation for both voters and public officials.
"We're waiting for procedures, plans, instructions" from the State Board of Elections, reports Trena Parker, director of Buncombe County Election Services.
Meanwhile, the last-minute addition of those 13 candidates caused the state to fall behind on approving and distributing this year’s ballots. As a result, the agency missed the Sept. 3 deadline for having absentee ballots available to the public.
"That's what I like about this job: Every single year's different," quips Parker. "There's never a dull moment."
On the runoff
Previously used in North Carolina only as a pilot program in local elections, instant-runoff voting has a curious history here. In 2006, the General Assembly made the method mandatory for judicial contests involving more than two candidates.
That was in response to an unusual situation created by the July 31, 2004, retirement of N.C. Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr. Because there wasn’t time to hold a primary, a special filing period was declared, and six candidates signed up. The winner in that race received only 23 percent of the vote.
History repeated itself this year, when Judge Jim Wynn resigned from the N.C. Court of Appeals in early August following his confirmation to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. With no time for a primary, a special filing period was once again declared, and now 13 candidates are jockeying to replace Wynn.
The crowded field caught the attention of Orr, who now heads the nonprofit N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law.
"I've been a lawyer for 35 years and a judge for 18 of those years,” he noted on organization's website. “So if I don't know anything about these people, how can we expect the 1 million or 2 million citizens who will vote in November to have even the remotest idea about whom to vote for?"
But a surfeit of candidates is not the only problem in electing judges. In 2004, about a quarter of voters statewide failed to mark their ballots for the judicial races. This may have been related to the fact that, two years earlier, such contests had been declared nonpartisan, meaning they were no longer automatically included when people voted a straight party ticket; instead, voters must now indicate their preferred judicial candidates individually.
What's a voter to do?
“I don't know that anybody is pleased that we're doing an election with so many candidates with so little time, but this is the law," notes Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a nonprofit, nonpartisan voter-advocacy group headquartered in Durham.
"There's better ways to pick judges than this one," Hall maintains. "I think [instant runoff] can be useful in some situations. [But] when you have 13 candidates in a judicial election that's so low-profile, I think it is a challenge for people to know who they prefer."
Under the circumstances, Hall stresses the importance of the 2010 General Election Judicial Voter Guide, which will offer biographical information on every judicial candidate. The Board of Elections will mail a copy to every household in North Carolina (see sidebar, “Who’s Who in the Judicial Races”). An edition of the guide prepared before Wynn’s seat opened up is due to go out Sept. 16, as required by law; it's already available on the agency’s website (http://www.sboe.state.nc.us).
At this writing, a supplement covering the 13 additional candidates was expected to follow "within days," according to General Counsel Don Wright. The board is printing 4.1 million copies of each guide, he notes, and sending them using the cheapest postal rate.
A $3 checkoff on state income-tax forms pays for the guide, which Hall calls "remarkably cheap" — about 12 cents per household, including postage. Both publications should be in voters' hands before Oct. 14, when early voting begins.
As for the instant-runoff procedure, Hall cautions: "Anything that's new takes time. I would encourage people to try to learn how it works."
— Freelance reporter Nelda Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.