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High Cost, Low Turnout Likely for Runoff Elections
By Damon Circosta
Published: June 14, 2010
RALEIGH - Most people don’t equate summer with election season. When one conjures up visions of voting the images are typically of a crisp autumn day. Or perhaps for primary voters Election Day might involve sprouting trees and the blooms of a North Carolina spring.
Summer, for both voters and politicians, is usually a quiet time. The public’s attention is on other things like vacation plans and kids camps. Candidates are usually out of the spotlight and quietly amassing resources for the fall campaign.
But every so often, election season extends into the dog days of summer.
This year, for many voters across the state, there is an opportunity to engage in democracy. But with so much else on the minds of the electorate, most of us won’t be braving the heat to head to the polls.
North Carolina law provides for a runoff to be held if no candidate achieves more than 40 percent of the vote in a primary election. In the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, as well as in Republican primary contests for congressional districts 8, 12 and 13, no clear winner prevailed. These races are headed for a June 22 runoff election between the top two candidates.
Turnout projections are exceedingly low for these runoffs. In a state with about 6 million registered voters, fewer than 100,000 will likely show up to the polls. Nevertheless, the expense of holding a statewide election remains relatively constant. It doesn’t matter if two people or 2,000 people show up at a precinct. It must be opened and staffed all day.
In the Democratic Senate primary, some people expressed concern when Cal Cunningham, the second-place finisher, called for a runoff. Citing concerns about the $5 million expense of holding a statewide election and doubts about his ability to overcome frontrunner Elaine Marshall, these critics said it was an irresponsible move. While reasonable people may disagree about his prospects, it sets a dangerous precedent when we ask candidates to bow out of elections to spare the state the expense.
Administering elections can be a costly enterprise. Accessible polls and accurately counted votes require resources. While everyone likes to see our government operate as cost-effectively as possible, scrimping on the very mechanism we use to hold our government accountable doesn’t make sense.
There are ways to achieve more citizen input in a less costly manner than holding a second primary election. Some municipalities in North Carolina and other states have experimented with something called instant runoff voting.
The idea is that during the first primary election, voters are offered the opportunity to select whom they would vote for if there were to be a runoff. It’s not perfect and would require spending some money to make sure that the instant runoff system was accurate and secure. But such a system could save money in the long run and also make voting more convenient, hopefully increasing turnout.
Short of implementing instant runoff voting, there are other changes we could make, such as rethinking the requirement that a candidate must get 40 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. Our election system is not set in stone. Using the democratic process, we are free to alter the system to make it more effective.
The fraction of registered voters who will carve out some time on June 22 to vote, or who cast a ballot using the early voting system, hold a considerable amount of sway in this election. It’s time to consider ways of changing the election process so more of us will get involved.