North Carolina taxpayers are about to spend several million dollars on Tuesday’s runoff election. According to state statutes if no candidate in a race receives 40 percent of the votes cast in a primary election the second place recipient can call for a runoff election. Our state is one of about ten, mostly southern states, that still practice the runoff ritual but it is time to end this archaic practice.
Our runoff voting record is abysmal. In 2008, only 1.8 percent of eligible voters returned to vote in the runoff, costing us more than 55 dollars per vote to conduct the runoff. In 2010, the number was a slightly larger 4.5 percent, but still a lackluster demonstration of democracy.
This May’s primary elections had a surprising 34 percent turnout from registered voters, due in large part to the Marriage Amendment that was on the ballot. Some question why wage a runoff in the heat of the summer vacation season, but the date of July 17 was picked in order to allow military service members, their family members and U.S. citizens living overseas plenty of time to receive and return absentee ballots.
There are five statewide races being decided Tuesday, all Council of State positions. Republicans will vote for Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Commissioner of Insurance and Superintendent of Public Instruction. Democrats have only the Commissioner of Labor race. In addition, two Republicans are waging a heated 9th District Congressional runoff contest. A case could be made that all these positions are important but voters don’t seem to agree. So far, fewer than 13,000 have cast ballots in early voting.
Proponents of runoffs claim that costs shouldn’t be the determining factor in the electoral process and that we need to ensure that all candidates get a fair shake. But enough is enough. It’s time to vote to end this expensive and nonproductive practice. With so few actually voting a stronger case can be made that only a sliver of the voting populace determines the runoff winner and the concept of majority rule doesn’t prevail.
There has to be a better way and we need to find it. Several options appear available. First and most promising is the instant runoff system, where you vote for your first choice in a race, then also pick your second choice at the same time. North Carolina has experimented with this practice but there were complaints it was too complicated or not well conducted. With refinement, however, this might be the most attractive alternative to runoff elections.
North Carolina once required a candidate to get 50 percent plus one vote to win the primary outright but subsequently lowered it to 40 percent. Perhaps it is time to decrease that margin to 30 or 35 percent. Some states have non-partisan primary elections where the top two vote getters face off in the general election. Others opt for partisan primary contests but declare that the top vote getter from each party is declared the primary winner and contends in the November contest.
Whatever the solution it is time our leaders got the message that voters don’t care enough about runoffs to show up and participate. In the interest of saving time and money Tuesday’s runoff should be the last one this state conducts.
— Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues airing Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on WRAL-TV and at 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV FOX50. He can be reached at www.ncspin.com.