Dismal runoff numbers show need to make instant runoffs work

Adam Sotak of Democracy NC and Rob Richie of FairVote have a compelling op-ed that’s been running in multiple places around the state. The piece explains:

a) Why North Carolina needs to ditch its lame primary runoff system (a system that, once again, turned out only a tiny fragment of the electorate yesterday), and b) What it would take to make instant runoff voting work better than past experiments. It’s definitely worth a read. Here’s an excerpt:

“North Carolina has had several IRV elections, and three exit polls show voters overwhelmingly preferred it to returning to the polls for a runoff. Unfortunately, the state’s voting equipment currently requires “workarounds” that delay the count. Once North Carolina has optical scan equipment like others have, it would have an IRV tally to share on election night along with other results.

IRV has several advantages:

  • Taxpayers save time and money. Traditional runoffs are costly. Remarkably, N.C. legislators this year declined to provide $664,000 in state election funds needed to trigger more than $4 million in federal money to help our elections run smoothly. In light of that reasoning, it’s hard to justify forcing counties to pay for a low turnout runoff election that will cost millions of dollars to administer. Reducing the number of election days when all polling places must be open would allow administrators to spend their resources more efficiently.
  • Candidates are less likely to be indebted to special-interest contributors. Right now, candidates often fight to make the runoff and then find their campaigns strapped for cash, triggering a scramble for more money that has the potential for ethical abuses.
  • All votes will count and the winner gets a majority. By combining the two rounds of the runoff, IRV ensures maximum turnout in one election.
  • If IRV were adopted for November elections, third-party supporters could vote their true preference without worrying about spoiling the chance for success of the candidate they prefer between the two most likely winners. North Carolina likely would then finally get rid of its terrible ballot access laws.”

Read the piece as it appeared in the Charlotte O this morning by clicking here.


  1. Chris Telesca

    July 18, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    Every time there is a 2nd primary, I always know that some progressive voices will call for a look – or in this case a re-examination – of IRV. That piece by Sotak and Richie is way off. It’s not very compelling because it makes the same lame arguments for IRV that have been proven wrong right here in NC. IRV had no advantages at all!

    Any election is a function of interest. Why are some voters interested in voting in a particular election and others are not? Here in Wake County, we had a school board runoff in November 2011 that generated more interest and turnout in 26 precincts than the general election in October. Earlier runoff elections in places like Rocky Mount and Wilmington did the same. Runoff elections give the folks who were culled out the chance to decide who to endorse in the runoff – something they can’t really do with IRV. Otherwise, why didn’t that really happen in the three IRV elections we’ve had so far?

    IRV does not create that interest. In fact, IRV can introduce a level of voter confusion that drives down voter turnout – like it did in Minneapolis in 2009. And like it has in San Francisco since they implemented IRV. When you only know or care about one candidate, you don’t have enough information to rank another candidate. And in the 2010 judicial IRV elections, voters were given complex and confusing directions to rank only one candidate, rank the same candidate in more than one column, or rank more than one candidate in the same column. My precinct usually has 5-8 spoiled ballots per major election, but we had three times as many for the 2010 judicial IRV election. And studies have shown that people are still confused by IRV years after their communities adopt it.

    IRV elections do not deliver majority winners except in very rare occasions. The winners of NC’s three contests decided by IRV did not have a 50% plus one majority of the first round votes. IRV advocates mislead voters when they say winners get a majority. With IRV it’s possible that someone who couldn’t win the first round could win without gaining a single additional vote once all the ballots were exhausted.

    In Cary in 2007, Don Frantz needed 1512 votes to win in the first round, but he was declared the winner after IRV only gave him 1401 votes once all votes were exhausted. In the statewide judicial IRV race, the winner received a little less than 28% of the first round votes. How is that a majority?

    How many of those 2nd primary runoff elections wouldn’t have been needed if we simply lowered the threshold for victory – perhaps based it on the number of candidates or margins between the top two vote getters? Since IRV elections really create slightly larger pluralities and the 1st round vote getter wins greater than 95% of the time when all ballots are exhausted, why not just let the first round winner win? That would save money, voter confusion, and not mess up our election integrity by having a complex counting method that our machines can’t handle and our election administrators can’t follow uniformly?

    And IRV does not save money when all the costs are honestly and accurately accounted for. The 2009 Minneapolis IRV election costs voters $365K more (adjusted for inflation) than the 2005 primary and general election it was designed to replace.

    Between 2005 (when the Public Confidence in Elections Act was passed) and 2011 (when the Republicans took over), NC used to have some of the best run elections in the country, according to groups like the Brennan Center for Justice. Yet the only way to really implement IRV without getting new machines requires us to use undertested and uncertified workarounds in the DRE counties. For paper counties, the process depends on hand-counting (which is legal) but more complex. Various counties across the state were not using the same methods to sort/stack/tally the paper ballots.

    Using estimates provided by the Maryland Legislative Research office and transposed to NC, it would cost over $20 million to implement IRV in NC, and then another $3 million a year for voter education. Even if we had statewide runoffs every two years, we’d never come close to what it would cost to implement IRV legally.

    But even that’s not possible because there is no voting equipment that is federally tested and certified to be used in NC! The main reason is that there are so many different ways to cast and count votes in IRV systems that no vendor wants to spend their own money to develop machines and software to do the job that is being done in so few places!

    And IRV does not help 3rd party candidates actually win elections. No third-party candidate has ever won an election with IRV that they didn’t win without IRV. What is the point of letting voters vote for candidates that have no hope of actually winning the election – what point does that serve?

  2. Joyce McCloy

    July 18, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    to say that we need to make IRV work, because of low turnout in runoffs is like saying
    “We need to make Fracking work.”

    Both are toxic, both lack transparency, neither solve a problem but instead are bigger problems than the one they seek to “fix”.

    With the statewide contest for NC Superior Court, between Thigpen and McCullough, we got the full IRV experience:

    48 days after the election, instant runoff voting produced a “winner” for the NC Court of Appeals, for the “Wynn”seat.

    Thanks to IRV, an experimental tallying method was used,
    the election was almost a tie,
    a recount was called for, and
    we had a plurality result, not a majority win.

    IRV is quite complicated, a Rube Goldberg-esque system of vote tallying, reallocating and eliminating.

  3. Dale

    July 18, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Saves money? Not true. http://www.instantrunoffvoting.us/costs.html

    Winner always gets a majority? Not true. http://irvbad4nc.blogspot.com/2010/12/after-48-days-instant-runoff-voting.html

    Better turnout? Not true. http://www.electology.org/irv-turnout-sf

    Don’t have to worry about spoilers? Not true. http://leastevil.blogspot.com/2012/04/cgp-grey-is-wrong-on-one-important.html

    What else ya got?

  4. Joyce McCloy

    July 18, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    Regarding the miracle optical scanners that the writer touts:

    USA Today ran an article about them, they are called the ES&S DS 200 optical scanner.
    The Federal Election Assistance Commission found several major problems with those scanners:

    •Random screen-freezes that prevent ballots from being fed.
    •Failure to log errors in a file that would let election officials know of problems.
    •Skewing of ballots as they’re fed into the machine, making votes cast in some parts of the ballot unreadable.

    In Ohio, 10% of the machines failed the pre election tests.

    There are other problems not mentioned in the USA Today article, but basically what happens is that the machines flat out don’t count all of the votes, due to these malfunctions.

    See “Federal agency finds defects in ballot scanners”
    By Gregory Korte, USA TODAY Updated 12/23/2011

  5. Chris Telesca

    July 19, 2012 at 10:14 am

    BTW – the DS200 scanners do not actually scan the ballot and count the votes the way that the M-100 scanner does.

    The reason why the DS200 can handle IRV is because it scans the ballot and stores the image, creating a “virtual ballot” whose votes are stored inside the machine. When the decision is made who the top two are, the machine can then do the IRV sort/stack and tally inside the machine. But not on Election night.

    Problem is that’s not legal in NC. The races need to be certified first and that takes a week. Do you want to leave the voting machines in place in all our Early Voting sites and 2769 precincts for a week while the results are certified before the 2nd and 3rd column votes can be scanned?

    Oh – and even if you were able to convince all 100 counties to replace their current machines with DS200 scanners (and some of those DRE counties will take a lot of convincing) – where is the money going to come from? Those machines are not cheap – they go for around $5K each, and to buy a scanner for each of our 2769 precincts plus Early Voting plus having a few extra to replace ones that have problems during the elections, you’d be looking at $17.3 million JUST FOR THE MACHINES. Figure right around $20 million in up front costs just to implement.

    Then what about voter education? San Francisco provides us with the best example of the need for voter education. They spend about $0.50 per voter for IRV education, and even a SF grand jury investigation found that is still not enough. But let’s pretend that it is – to avoid runoffs in ANY election, we’d have to do IRV education each and every year – for a cost of $3 million.

    So first year implementation and voter ed costs are $23 million the first year, and $3 million each year after that. Even if we had a statewide runoff every 2 years, how many years would it take for NC to break even with IRV?

    Assuming of course that the machines were federally tested and certified to handle IRV. They aren’t even tested and certified for use in our conventional elections in NC.

  6. Chris Telesca

    July 21, 2012 at 10:57 am

    Correction – the DS 200 scanners go for $6K each. If Wake County replaced all their scanners it would cost $1.524 million. If the state somehow magically was able to replace all the voting machines in the state with DS200 scanners in all 2769 precincts (and that includes replacing the DRE touchscreen machines) with enough scanners to cover Early Voting and the extras that are needed, it would cost $23.26 million! That does not include the cost of the IRV software.

    Paper ballots and op-scanners are better than DRE machines since the paper ballots are easier to count by hand in the event a recount or hand-to-eye count is needed. County Election Directors do not want to hand-count the thermal paper trails generated by the DRE touchscreen machines.

    Do you think IRV is worth spending that sort of money on?

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