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Editorial: Runoff sets costly record

What if they held an election and nobody came? North Carolina almost answered that question with Tuesday’s Democratic runoff for labor commissioner, and the results weren’t exactly a rock-bottom bargain. The runoff between victor Mary Donnan and John Brooks may well have set two records ó the lowest turnout ever for a statewide contest (less than 2 percent) and the highest cost per voter (an estimated $55 per ballot, with an overall tab of between $3.5 million and $5 million).
In Rowan County, the numbers were even scantier. Only 481 ballots were cast, slightly less than 1 percent of the 49,269 registered voters who either identify themselves as Democrats or are unaffiliated and picked that ballot in the May primary. It’s estimated that our portion of this exercise cost about $25,000.
Was it worth it?
Well, you could say “yes” from the standpoint that labor commissioner is an important position, responsible for monitoring workplace safety around the state. It’s a job that most of us probably don’t give much thought to until farmworkers fall ill from heat exhaustion or pesticide poisoning, a construction trench caves in or poultry workers perish in a horrible fire. Then we want to know who’s accountable.
You could also say “yes” from the standpoint that, whatever the above computations might say, you simply can’t put a price on voting rights ó no matter how few may actually think it worth their while to exercise that right on a down-ballot Council of State office.
But when you look at the costs involved and the abysmal turnout, the obvious question arises: Isn’t there a better way?
One option is instant runoff voting. With this mechanism, which has been tried successfully in some N.C. municipal elections, voters don’t just check off their top candidate for office; they also list their second and third choices. Then, if nobody gains the 40 percent of the vote required under current law, elections officials would tally which of the top two vote-getters received the most additional votes from those whose top choice had been eliminated.
Another option would be to either lower the percentage of the total vote required for victory or go to a winner-take-all format. Opponents of such changes worry that a candidate in a crowded field could win with a relatively small percentage of the overall vote. But a turnout of 2 percent hardly equates to a broad mandate, either.
Yet a third possibility would be to make labor commissioner and other Council of State appointive, rather than elective, which would not only reduce the potential for future costly runoffs but also simplify the ballot.
Of course, there’s always the option of doing nothing. But before you check off on that one, reconsider the expense of this exercise ó and who ultimately pays the bill. Although it’s a statewide ballot, the costs are borne by individual counties that have to set up voting stations, print ballots (or program machines), staff the polls and count and verify the results. Nobody ever said democracy comes cheap, but $55 a vote? Surely we can find a more cost effective system than this.

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