I Oppose the Instant Runoff, and You Should Too
/***** UPDATE: 11-3-2010 4:47 PM -- This article incorrectly implies the election would result in a runoff prior to the implementation of IRV. This error is based on differences in NC statutes regulating primary and general elections. NC GS 163-111 requires a "substantial plurality" in primary elections. Primary candidates must attain 40% of the vote to secure their party's nomination. NC GS 163-182.15 (d) regulates general elections, and grants office to the person who receives the most votes. This does not change my opposition to IRV, a system which denies citizens their right to vote under the guise of increasing turnout. Further, I am now curious to know what statute authorized the implementation of IRV in this election. *****
During yesterday's election, North Carolina implemented a first-of-its-kind "instant runoff" for a race with thirteen candidates. At first, it sounds like a good idea. You mark your choices, and if a runoff is required, you don't have to wait for a secondary vote or make plans to get back to the polls. However, there are two major problems with this scheme. First, it's not really "instant." If a runoff is required, we still won't know the results until the end of November. Given that the runoff would have been held in early December, this isn't much of an improvement in timing. In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor concern.
The second flaw, on the other hand, is far more important. The instant runoff denies the right to vote to a significant portion of the population all in the name of "turnout." How? The election in question has 13 candidates. You may only rate 3. Let's assume for the sake of argument that the election only had 9 candidates: 3 conservative, 3 liberal, and 3 moderate. Personally, I would vote for the 3 conservatives, but if the runoff choice were between a moderate and a liberal, I would choose the moderate. The last thing we need is more liberal justices. Because I chose the three conservatives, I would be denied this opportunity. If you're top 3 aren't in the runoff, you're SOL. I would expect liberals to share a similar criticism. Certainly, if the tables were reversed, and the choice were between a moderate and a Conservative, they would want a chance to make their voice heard--however detrimental their opinions may be.
I'm not fundamentally opposed to the concept behind an "instant runoff" (for general elections, not primaries). especially when there are so many candidates a runoff seems virtually guaranteed. However, if an instant runoff is going to be fair, it must allow voters the opportunity to select enough candidates that they can cast a ballot regardless of which candidates make the cut. In this case, that means 12 choices. Of course, defenders of the "instant runoff" would--rightly--point out that 12 candidates is impractical. As such, we should just scrap this not-so-instant runoff and go back to the old system. Critics may say the old system limits turnout. What is worse: limited turnout (by choice) or a government decision that denies participation? Voters who care about the election will find a way to get to the polls.