Runoff Elections a Waste of Time?
Are runoff elections worth the estimated $5 million each of them costs the state, not to mention the added money they cost individual counties?
One little statistic (and we do mean little) provides some indication of the answer to that question: In the last statewide runoff, the 2008 match-up to choose a Democratic nominee for state labor commissioner, a grand total of 245 Moore County voters bothered to cast ballots. That was seven-tenths of 1 percent of eligible voters. Statewide, the total was less than 2 percent.
“We had precincts where the only people who voted were the precinct workers,” says Moore County Elections Director Glenda Clendenin.
The June 22 Democratic senatorial runoff between Elaine Marshall and Cal Cunningham might produce a marginally more decent showing than that. But how much is enough to make this game worth the candle — 3 percent? Or maybe a breathtaking 5 percent, meaning 19 out of every 20 eligible voters still stayed home?
Even under the rosiest scenario, a measly, minuscule splinter of the state’s residents are making these important decisions for all the rest. There’s gotta be a better way.
Narrowing the Field
The function of a runoff is to narrow the field to one party nominee for the fall election when a crowded primary ballot prevents any one candidate from getting a majority. Or at least a majority used to be required. That changed in 1989 when the General Assembly wisely — but rather arbitrarily — lowered the bar to 40 percent.
In last month’s primary, with six candidates seeking the Democratic Senate nomination, no one managed to get even 40 percent. Marshall came close at 36, with Cunningham trailing at 27. So under current law, the runoff is required to decide who goes up against the Republican incumbent, Sen. Richard Burr, in November.
The runoff has its origins in the old days, when North Carolina was solidly Democratic. Since the November results were a foregone conclusion, at least the runoff provided a semblance of a meaningful two-person contest.
Now that the state has two strong parties in healthy contention, some argue that the runoff has served its purpose and should be quietly retired. After all, the leading candidate in the first primary usually wins the runoff anyway. Still, a “nominee” could hardly be said to have much credibility if he went into the fall with, say, one-quarter of his party behind him — especially if he did so only by rallying a small but rabid fringe.
Possible Answer: ‘Instant Runoff’
A second possibility would be simply to lower the 40 percent to maybe 35. But that’s far from a robust solution. If that policy had been in effect last month, for instance, Marshall would have squeaked through by merely 1 percentage point, hardly a ringing endorsement.
The only remaining option, and perhaps the most sensible one despite its own set of drawbacks, is the so-called “instant runoff” that some other countries and American localities have opted for. Under it, voters would designate both No. 1 and No. 2 choices. If no one received 40 percent, then election officials would determine the winner by factoring in the second choices.
For whatever it’s worth — and it’s worth a lot to us at The Pilot — the very competent and informed Clendenin personally tends to favor that alternative.
No solution is going to be perfect, considering that the real underlying problem is rampant voter apathy. But just about anything would be better than the current runoff system, in which a tiny tail wags a very large dog.
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