Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — As North Carolina voters avoided the voting booth by the millions on Tuesday, election officials and academics called on the General Assembly to scrap the state’s expensive, no-show runoff elections.
Voters chose finalists in five races for Council of State, three congressional contests, a handful of legislative tilts, and numerous local runoffs.
“All indications are we are probably going to have the lowest turnout ever” in a second primary, Gary Bartlett, N.C. State Board of Elections executive director, said early Tuesday afternoon, lamenting that the voter turnout might not even reach the 2.5 percent of the 6,175,111 eligible voters he had predicted earlier.
“We’re having places in North Carolina that haven’t even hit a half of a percent yet. In fact, at 10 a.m., Tyrell County had only voted 10 people in the whole county. In Durham County, only 50 had voted,” Bartlett said. Camden County had 14 votes. Union County led the state at 10 a.m. with 1,600 votes.
Bartlett adjusted his prediction upward by late afternoon, and final turnout clocked in at around 3.5 percent.
“The General Assembly needs to determine how best to pick for the general election because you can truly see through past history and today that voters do not participate in second primaries,” said Bartlett, who has overseen the state’s elections for 20 years.
“During my tenure, [turnout in runoff elections] has been as low as 2.5 percent and as high 8 percent,” Bartlett said. “The highest I’m aware of was 1990 between Harvey Gantt and Mike Easley. That was 19 percent” in their face-off for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination. Gantt won that race, but lost to incumbent Republican Jesse Helms.
Despite the scant turnout, Tuesday’s runoff will cost taxpayers “at least $7 million,” Bartlett said.
Second primaries are held when no candidate in the first primary reaches a 40 percent plurality threshold and the second-place finisher requests it.
“There have been some discussions by previous general assemblies” about revising the runoff system, Bartlett said. “The last time that they really took this serious they dropped the plurality from 50 percent plus to 40 percent plus, and, of course, we are still having these second primaries.”
“I think it’s a practice whose time has come and gone,” said Don Schroeder, associate professor of political science at Campbell University.
“The runoff primaries were important at a time when North Carolina was a one-party state, in which case the Democratic primary, for all practical purposes, was the election,” Schroeder said.
“And so if you have a multicandidate race, you don’t want someone with a mere plurality to then get the nomination, guaranteeing the election. So the runoff primary was a way to assure there was some semblance of a majority behind whoever became the public official,” he said.
“That’s no longer true,” Schroeder said. “North Carolina is a very competitive state, in which case a runoff primary is no longer needed to make that assurance. We have a general election that’s competitive.”
Both Bartlett and Schroeder said one option lawmakers might consider simply is to declare the highest vote-getter in the primary the party’s nominee for the general election, regardless of percentage.
“If members of a party don’t like that outcome they can always vote for someone in the other party. That’s the way most states do it,” Schroeder said.
Bartlett suggested another option to a runoff might be to have a process by which a second-place finisher in the primary could petition the political party to choose the nominee if none of the candidates wins a 40 percent plurality.
“I like that system,” Schroeder said. “If I could adjust that a little bit, I’d have the parties pick the candidate in the first place at some sort of party convention, and then, if the party convention (vote) is close, hold a primary” if the runner-up requests.
“That would save a huge amount of money,” he said. “It would probably be more meaningful because you would have people participating who actually know something about the candidate.”
Virginia has a system similar to that for nominating statewide candidates at party conventions. Usually, a primary isn’t held because registered party members are happy with their first choice.
“That would have to be a legislative change,” Bartlett said. “I think we would have a little firestorm” if that were proposed.
“One thing I can tell you about North Carolina, they love to vote for an office,” Bartlett said. “But if you tried to take away even the second primary, they would have an uproar.”
One “better and more economic way to pick a nominee” could be with instant runoffs in the primary, Bartlett said.
With instant runoffs, voters rank their top three choices by preference. If no candidate gets a required plurality, the two with the most votes are placed in the runoff. Their second-place votes are added to determine the winner. If a plurality is not attained, then third-place votes are added.
“I guess I tend to be a little bit suspicious of those kind of innovations,” said Schroeder. “I’m a little bit old-fashioned that way.”
Instant runoff pilot projects have been used before in North Carolina local elections — once in Cary and twice in Hendersonville.
“Hendersonville embraced it and said they loved it,” Bartlett said. Cary officials “thought it was a little confusing.”
There was one instant runoff election for statewide office in 2010. Former Court of Appeals Judge Doug McCullough edged sitting appellate Judge Cressie Thigpen by 0.62 percent in the recount of the second- and third-place voter choices.
Scott Laster, North Carolina Republican Party executive director, believes that Tuesday’s low turnout could be a tipping point.
“It certainly lends us to evaluate this process and see what alternatives are out there,” Laster said. Those advocating reform could “use this as a springboard to get something done for 2014.”
Repeated attempts to reach state Democratic Party Chairman David Parker and Tammy Brunner, the party’s interim executive director, were not successful.
Dan Way is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.