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‘Instant runoff’ injects more mystery into judicial elections

This week, former N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Jim Wynn finally steps into shoes he has been waiting to fill for years as the newest member of Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

It’s a move that colleagues statewide applaud, and yet the switch could once again open an age-old debate – Should judges in North Carolina be elected or chosen for the bench based on merit?

That’s been a question people have been asking for years based on the fact that, in all likelihood, voters don’t know much – if anything – about judges on the ballot.

I’ll be honest, and a little shame-faced. Until I started working at Lawyers Weekly, I had no idea who I was voting for. I couldn’t tell you anything about Judge Wynn or list the name of any of the other judges that I ultimately ended up voting for.

Neither did most of the people I know.

“Who’s this person? Their name sounds nice enough.” Fill in the circle.

“I think I’ve heard about this guy on the news.” Never mind what the news story was about.

Fill in the circle.

So when I read an Associated Press article saying that a “rare” instant runoff process may be used to select Wynn’s replacement in November, I just sighed.

It’s yet another electoral process that I’m unfamiliar with. And in a system where there are ridiculous things called hanging chads that can lead to court battles, I really hope that this instant runoff thing doesn’t exacerbate the problem that voters don’t know Judge X from Judge Y.

From what I understand from the article, instant runoff voting works by having voters rank the candidates for the judicial seat in order of preference.

Then there’s this whole process that happens if no candidate receives a majority vote and so on.

How a ranking can possibly mean anything from voters who haven’t done their homework, I don’t know.

Now, instant runoffs will only be necessary if at least three candidates file for the vacant seat.

I confess I’m hoping that the number will stand at two.

 – By DIANA SMITH, Staff Writer


  1. You do understand that Voters in State Wide Judicial Races think a instant runoff is the first playoff round of the National Football Leaque…….

  2. In an email Thursday Aug 19 2010 the NC State Board of Elections advised me that they do not yet have procedures for tallying a statewide IRV contest.

    Cary NC participated in an IRV pilot in 2007, and had trouble counting just 3,000 IRV votes, ended up having to do an audit which became a recount.

    There are no voting machines in the US that are certified to count IRV for a statewide contest, and non certified to tally IRV for even a small election:

    “There are no provisions on ES&S equipment to tabulate IRV.” ~ Keith Long , Voting System Project Manager for the North Carolina State Board of Elections Jan 7, 2008

    The SBoE considered it too dangerous to allow IRV pilots during May because of mixing with regular voting methods and no software:

    “We can use November 2007 as a pilot and not use IRV in May 2008 because it poses too much of a risk. May request change in legislation for retesting IRV with certified upgrades in 2009.” ~ NC State Board of Elections March 6, 2007

    There have been no upgrades.

    In November, voters may go to the polls and have 2 different election methods, an IRV ballot for the judicial seat, and regular voting method for others.

    Scotland tried mixing STV (a form of IRV) with the regular voting method all in one day, in May 2007 and the result was 100,000 spoiled ballots. The election was described as “not so much an election as a national humiliation”.

    IRV is not additive, so you can’t simply add up the votes at the polling places, the votes must be taken to a central location to be tallied.

    NC law requires that votes cast at polling places be counted there upon election night. Also votes be reported. Thats hard work our machines can’t do with IRV so then what?

    There’s more, but just visit or

    IRV clashes with several of NC’s election laws.

  3. PS. I have been told that the NCSBoE will announce the filing deadline in Asheville on Tuesday. They will give candidates a week to file in.

  4. You are seeing only the tip of the iceberg. The 2006 session law that created this requirement for what might turn out to be statewide IRV also created an IRV pilot election program at the same time.

    Election integrity advocates lead largely by the NC Coalition for Verified Voting had only succeeded in getting the Public Confidence in Elections Act passed in 2005. We successfully fought off requirements that any newly purchased election systems had to handle IRV on the simple grounds that there no systems existed that were certified to handle IRV.

    We wanted to fine-tune some requirements for mandatory random audits, but the 2006 omnibus election amendment bill had us really scratching our heads and wondering if some of our legislators really knew what they were doing.

    The pilot allowed for up to 10 municipal IRV election pilots in 2007, and up to 10 county-wide elections in 2008, with the SBOE reporting back to the General Assembly. This was presumably to test out methods for voter education, election tabulation, and other issues – and hopefully to see whether or not it was practical to adopt as a regular election method in our state. But why set up an IRV “pilot” to see if IRV could or should even be done – then set up a mandate to use the method on county and/or statewide elections in the same bill?

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