A simple change could tone down NC elections, boost turnout

Published June 2, 2022

By Gary Bartlett

North Carolinians went to the polls May 17 and voted. But in several high-profile congressional primaries, candidates won with just over 30% of the vote — meaning the vast majority of voters chose someone other than the winner. And the Wake County sheriff race won’t be over for another 10 weeks.

So long as they get 30% of the vote, candidates win primaries in North Carolina outright — even if they’re nowhere near majority support. If nobody wins 30%, the elections go to a second primary, with the top two candidates facing off again on July 26. The winner of that contest wins the primary.

In theory, our second primary elections ensure that party nominees win a majority of the vote.

In practice, second primary elections don’t solve the problem of candidates winning with over 30%, but less than 50%, of the vote. When second primaries do occur, they are another taxpayer expense, burden on election administrators and voters, and most importantly — fewer people vote.

A recent report found for every two people who vote in the primary election, one doesn’t vote in the second primary.

As a longtime executive director of the North Carolina Board of Elections, I believe that every vote makes a difference. True voter participation and choice is a key factor for governance and a strong democracy.

One improvement for North Carolina’s elections could be ranked choice voting (RCV), sometimes known as instant second primary voting. Voters in the Tar Heel State have already used this method of voting, in two municipal elections from 2007-2010 and statewide in 2010.

At the time, state law required that appellate judicial elections be filled using RCV if there was not enough time for a primary. With the 2010 vacancy, we had 88 days to implement the method and no budget to do it. Through creativity and teamwork, we were able to run the election without any written complaints or election protests. It is still the largest statewide RCV election in the U.S. since the 1930s.

With RCV, voters rank candidates in order of preference: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so on. If a candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, they win. If no candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated. Voters who ranked that candidate first have their votes counted for their second choice. This process continues until one candidate wins a majority.

In addition to fostering majority winners without expensive, low-turnout second primaries, RCV can lead to friendlier campaigns.

When Virginia Republicans used RCV for their nominations last year, one candidate shared kind words about each of his competitors — and asked their supporters to rank him second. Plus, polarizing candidates don’t win with a small percentage of the vote or because of low voter turnout.

RCV also removes the burden of voting in a second election for those serving abroad. Six other Southern states allow military and overseas voters to rank candidates if a race moves to a second primary. These voters’ ballots count for their highest-ranked candidate who advanced.

RCV is no experiment — it’s used by 10 million voters, and there are best practices to build on. Our organization, the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, helps election administrators across the country implement RCV through education, training, research and individual jurisdiction assistance.

Of course, RCV is one alternative voting method — but it yields majority winners with a larger mandate to govern and gives voters more choice and voice.

North Carolina should consider whether this simple change could make our elections faster, more cost-effective, and better.

Gary Bartlett is executive director of the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center and former director of the NC Board of Elections, 1993-2013. He lives in Goldsboro.