North Carolina Leads the Way
North Carolina voters cast one ballot for appellate judge posts in the recent election, but a unique run-off mechanism ensured that one hotly contested race got multiple reviews from election officials. Thirteen candidates were vying to fill a Court of Appeals vacancy created when Judge Jim Wynn was elevated to a federal appellate judgeship. North Carolina election officials did not have time to stage a primary to narrow the field, so they chose to employ an Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) system that would provide a way to resolve the race without need for an additional, and costly, day of voting if none of the candidates secured a majority.
Voters were instructed to rank their top three choices from among the 13 non-partisan candidates. No candidate secured a majority of votes, but the IRV system provided a way for election officials to (somewhat) instantly declare a result – that the winner would be one of the top two vote-getters, incumbent Cressie Thigpen or former appeals judge Doug McCullough. The state re-examined the ballots of voters whose top choice was not either of the finalists, and in this review each candidate got an extra vote whenever a voter made one of them their next choice.
The results, of course, are important. Judge McCullough ultimately emerged the winner from the IRV review by 6,655 votes out of nearly 1.1 million cast. Judge Thigpen also ended up back on the Court of Appeals when Governor Perdue appointed him to fill a seat vacated when another judge won election to the state supreme court. A very influential court was bolstered by the addition of two experienced judges, but the process might get as much Monday morning quarterback thought as the result.
The race was closely watched nationally by election officials and reformers, as it’s believed this was the first use of a ranking type runoff system in a statewide race in at least 70 years. Money, and citizen participation, were key considerations. A standard runoff, in which judges McCullough and Thigpen would have faced off again before voters, would have featured predictably low turnout and fully staffed voting locations across the state. The tab could easily have been in the millions for just a single race, and tough for state officials to contemplate with a looming budget gap that may exceed $3 billion. Meanwhile, reformers hoped IRV’s ranking process would result in a winning candidate who emerged from a process that reflected the preferences of a greater number of voters.
The final result, confirmed 48 days after the November election, was hardly instant. However, election officials were working with an entirely new system in a high-stakes statewide race and can hardly be faulted for caution in this initial IRV outing. Implementation of IRV was certainly controversial, and it seems likely that if it’s employed again state officials will enhance and clarify the instructions voters receive about the significance of their second- and third-place rankings. This election’s result does nothing to calm the long-simmering debate in North Carolina about whether popular elections are the right way to seat appellate judges. But as a first try at a more efficient and less costly way to resolve tight races, an election reform advocate summed it up well for the Associated Press: “It’s a pretty fair reflection of a fairly close race.”
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