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North Carolina First to Use Groundbreaking IRV Rules for a Statewide Election

This year’s midterm elections have the potential to change more than just the political landscape – as North Carolina gears up to become the first state to use instant runoff voting (IRV) in a statewide election, Nov. 2 could also mark a turning point in how states conduct their elections.

Under IRV rules, voters still have one vote and one ballot, but get to rank candidates in order of preference – i.e., 1, 2, and 3.  If no candidate wins the first-choice majority, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their supporters’ second choices are distributed to the remaining candidates in an “instant runoff.”  The process of elimination and redistribution continues until one candidate has a majority. 

According to The Times-News, the race to fill a vacancy on the North Carolina state Court of Appeals is already crowded with thirteen candidates, a situation that would virtually guarantee a subsequent runoff election.  However, runoffs notoriously have much lower turnout rates amongst voters – in 2008, turnout in the statewide runoff was approximately 20 times smaller than in the first round.  Despite abysmal turnout, runoffs typically cost millions of dollars to administer.  Not only does IRV help avoid a runoff, but it ensures that winners have enough broad support to earn second and third choices in addition to core first choices.  Situations in which candidates win without a clear majority victory – such as Ben Quayle, who won an Arizona congressional primary last month with only 23% of the vote – can be prevented.

IRV has previously been used in North Carolina city elections with much success.  Cary, North Carolina used IRV rules in 2007 to elect its mayor and city council members.  Exit polls showed that 95% of voters understood IRV “well or fairly well,” while 72% actually preferred the system to voting for a single candidate.  The city council of Hendersonville, which saw similar outcomes after using IRV for their 2007 and 2009 city council elections, has indicated that it would like to implement IRV on a permanent basis. 

IRV first became a hot-button topic in North Carolina in 2004, when the winner of a fiercely partisan Supreme Court vacancy election won with less than 25% of the vote.  The state mobilized to change a system that could allow a judge to hold an eight-year term despite the fact that 75% of the state did not vote for him.  IRV is making its first statewide appearance this year because of the subsequent 2006 law requiring that "late vacancy" races - in which vacancies are created between the primaries and 60 days prior to the general election - with more than two candidates use IRV to determine a winner if no one gets more than 50% of the vote.