Counting, 1, 2, 3

Tallying up Nov. 2's instant runoff votes will be complex. For the future, there's a better way.

October 2, 2010 

It's now one month, precisely, to the general election - a general election that also contains what amounts to a primary election. That's North Carolina's first-ever, cross-your-fingers-and-hope-for-the-best experiment with statewide instant runoff voting for one of the five available seats on the state Court of Appeals.

Readers may recall a Sept. 3 discussion here of how the instant-runoff election came about and what voters will be expected to do. At issue is a race that includes 13 candidates, most of them little-known, for the state Court of Appeals seat formerly occupied by Judge Jim Wynn, who moved on up after his ticket to the federal bench was finally punched by the U.S. Senate this summer.

Those 13 names are listed on the ballot three times apiece. That's so voters can rank their choices for an "instant runoff" in case no one of the 13 gets over 50 percent of the vote - and it's highly unlikely that any will. Instructions for voting are on the ballot itself and in a booklet being mailed to registered voters by the State Board of Elections.

Clearly, voters will want to learn about the candidates, and instant runoffs, before stepping into the booth Nov. 2. Question is, once they've voted, will election officials and their voting machines be up to the task of counting them?

Certainly not "instantly." That's been clear all along - counting the runoff votes will take several days. This week, the Board of Elections decided not to hold a multi-county "mock election" as a test, although individual counties are free to do so.

For most of the state, vote-counting in the IRV race will involve hand-sorting paper ballots and then running those with valid second- and third-choice votes through the counting machines again. In the 24 counties that use touch-screen voting machines, officials will have to sort through the "paper trail" that those machines generate and pick out the instant runoff votes.

It sounds like a mess in the making, but we'll see.

For the future, is there a way out? Former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr suggests enacting a constitutional amendment so that judges or justices appointed to fill a vacancy would serve at least two years before standing for election. That would give voters useful information - namely, the appointed judge's record on the bench - and likely reduce the number of long-shot challengers.

It would also mean that elections could be held in the normal sequence, with a regular primary if needed. It's a common-sense change North Carolina should elect to make.

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