Sunday, June 27, 2010

More of the same old IRV "gas"....

Like I have written in numerous postings, I knew when the Democratic US Senate race went to runoff, there would be more of the same old tired calls for IRV. And I even said that these claims would be couched as "a better way".

Sure enough - here comes another such bogus claim in the form of an AP wire story printed in the Daily Reflector: - it should be called the Daily Mirage!

Is there a better way than primary runoff for NC?

The Associated Press
Sunday, June 27, 2010

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A turnout of 4.5 percent of the eligible voters was better than expected for North Carolina's second primary last week, raising the question of whether runoffs have outlived their usefulness.

I think the only people raising that question are people trying to push IRV and their friends on the editorial boards.

Fifty years ago, when North Carolina was a one-party state, nearly as many people would vote in a statewide Democratic runoff as the first race, because their votes likely would choose the eventual winner of the general election. Today, in a competitive two-party state, turnout at the local firehouse on the day of the runoff may not be much more than the poll workers themselves.

Then a primary in a one-part state wasn't really much of a primary, was it? If, as the promoters of IRV claim, more choice is supposed to be better and leads to greater voter turnout - why aren't more voters taking part in non-presidential year primary elections?

That's led some election reform advocates to argue there's got to be a better way to choose only a handful of nominees who didn't win the first time.

"One way or another, it seems like the runoff election systems for picking a party's nominee in a statewide election is outdated," said Bob Hall, with the election reform group Democracy North Carolina.

This is interesting that Bob Hall claims that runoffs are outdated. The solution he proposes is also advocated by groups who want to make political parties irrelevant: make all races non-partisan.

But remember our state motto: Esse quam videri (to be rather than to seem). Just because a runoff seems outdated to Bob Hall or to other IRV/RCV advocates, it doesn't mean that runoffs have ceased to serve a valuable purpose.

Save for experiments in two municipalities with voters ranking candidates on the first election day, North Carolina lawmakers don't seem interested in changing the runoff system. Some like it because it ultimately declares victory to the candidate who receives a majority of votes.

There were three experiments in two municipalities: one in Cary in 2007 where 25% of voters didn't know they'd be expected to rank their choices and 30% didn't understand IRV, and two in Hendersonville (one in 2007 and one in 2009) where 33% of voters didn't know they'd be expected to rank their choices. Only in one district race in Cary was IRV used to determine a final winner, and the tabulation process was so messed up that, in the end, the winner only got 1401 votes out of 3022 - not a majority.

"I realize turnout's low and it costs a lot of money, but it still keeps people in the process," said Rep. Phil Haire, D-Jackson. He's a past critic of legislation that would reduce or eliminate the 40 percent threshold a candidate must surpass in the first primary to avoid a runoff. "I believe in elections."

Interestingly enough, before the threshold was dropped to 40%, the number of races that went to runoff was higher - but so was the turnout! Dropping the threshold decreased the number of races that went to runoff and also decreased the turnout. So if you believe in upholding the will of the People, you have to give them a chance to tell you want they want - and they do that by voting.

North Carolina is one of only nine states - all in the South - where runoffs are used regularly in all races, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The leading vote-getter must receive a majority of all votes cast to avoid a primary or general election runoff in each one except North Carolina, where the threshold fell to 40 percent in 1990 after some argued that it was preventing minorities from becoming nominees.

It was also done to decrease the number of runoff elections in the hope of lowering costs - but that doesn't matter if the runoff is in a statewide race.

if 42 other states don't have runoff elections, why not just get rid of them? If all you care about is saving money, why not just have a primary election and give the nomination to the person who gets the most votes?

State Rep. Mickey Michaux, who came out on the losing end of a 1982 congressional primary runoff, said the primary runoff is outdated and puts the winner in a tough position entering the general election against the opposing party's nominee.

"It's too expensive and it doesn't do the (candidates) any good to beat up on each other," said Michaux, D-Durham.

Some African-American candidates feel differently - and have used the runoff to their advantage much more recently than Michaux's race 28 years ago. Durham's Stella Adams, 1st Vice Chair of the NC Democratic Party, feels that runoffs are a good thing - and IRV is a bad thing. So much so that she threatened legal action if Durham adopted IRV. African American municipal office candidates in Rocky Mount and Wilmington benefited from runoffs in 2007 - the first year of the IRV pilot program. Rocky Mount was one of the communities that voted "no" on IRV that year!

Unofficial elections data show 212,833 registered voters cast ballots in last Tuesday's runoff out of a potential 4.7 million who were qualified to vote in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary, three GOP races for Congress, a state Senate race and local races.

Recent history shows runoff turnouts ranging from 1.8 percent in 2008 to as high as 8 percent. Gary Bartlett, executive director of the State Board of Elections, had estimated the turnout would be on the low end of that range, but the percentage improved as the U.S. Senate runoff between Cal Cunningham and Elaine Marshall attracted more than 158,000 votes. Marshall won the nomination.

Marshall won the nomination with a clear majority of the votes cast in the June primary, not a smaller number of votes in an IRV round which was less than the number of votes she would have needed to win the first round. A traditional runoff also allowed the two remaining candidates more time to communicate with the voters compared with trying to do so in a field of 6 before the May primary. It also gave the other candidates in the May primary a chance to endorse one of the two remaining candidates - something that was impossible for them to do in a traditional runoff. Candidates also didn't have to tell voters how to rank them in with other candidates, wasting time and diluting their main message.

Bartlett estimated the costs for all 100 counties to put on the elections at between $3.5 million and $5 million. Counties want the General Assembly to eliminate the runoff elections, citing the expense, said Todd McGee with the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners.

What counties what the GA to eliminate the runoffs? And replace them with what - IRV elections that are more confusing for voters, more complex to administer, and more costly all around?

Think $3.5 to $5 million is expensive? Try $20 million to implement IRV statewide, and $3 million for voter education every year there is an election. You'd NEVER break even with IRV!

State Republican Party officials also used the runoff to their advantage in the 8th District race, where Tim D'Annunzio finished first in the May 4 primary but received 36 percent of the votes. They took the unusual position of actively backing second-place finisher Harold Johnson after documents from D'Annunzio's divorce revealed past drug use and bizarre religious claims. Johnson cruised to the runoff victory.

And with IRV/RCV, D'Annunzio would have most likely won an IRV race, because over 95% of IRV races ultimately are won by the first place finisher in the first round. Republicans would have been stuck with this guy! Voters would have been robbed of the chance to learn vital information about one of their candidates that was only made available after the primary election. In traditional runoffs, the second place finisher flips and wins the runoff 33% of the time. Which seems more "democratic"?

An alternative to primary runoffs could include making the parties choose between the two leading vote-getters at a party caucus or convention. The state also could require parties to pay for their runoffs.

The General Assembly agreed in 2006 to let some towns and cities use "instant runoff voting" for municipal elections. Voters in Cary and Hendersonville have used the method, where voters rank their order of preference among listed candidates. A runoff winner is chosen by counting the top choice for the two top vote-getters on ballots of voters whose first-choice candidate was eliminated. Those choices are added to the original counts of the two leaders. The candidate with the most combined votes is the winner.

NC's one and only election decided by IRV (because there wasn't a first round majority winner) was the Cary District B election. 3022 votes were cast in 8 precincts, in early voting and via absentee by mail balloting. It took the Wake BOE an entire day to set up, sort, stack and count those ballots. It was not done according to published rules that called for overhead projectors for observers to make sure ballots were sorted properly, and for only board members to handle ballots. Instead, ballots were split up among board members and volunteers and were sorted in a mad rush, denying observers a chance to see not only if the ballots were sorted properly, but also to see if voters had problems ranking candidates properly. The process was so confusing for board members that one had to swap his duties with the volunteer tally sheet writer.

At the end of the day, the BOE had a different total than the observers had. They discovered a calculator error, then decided to do a full-blown non-public recount of the votes in the office of a staff member. No candidate or observer was present for the recount, or even notified. more missing votes were discovered, but I guess we'll just have to trust this secret recount. In the end, Don Frantz had 1401 out of 3022 votes. In other words, Frantz won with 1401 IRV votes when he would have needed 1512 to win the first round.

North Carolina State University professor Michael Cobb said surveys he assembled on voters of both towns showed an overwhelmingly majority found it easy to understand. It also saved another trip to the polls.

"Instant runoff voting isn't necessarily the best method but it certainly has a lot of positive features," Cobb said.

What positive features?

Does it cost less? No - other jurisdictions that have done a more thorough cost accounting of IRV have shown that IRV costs more than traditional elections - in some cases more than a regular election and a runoff. Pierce County, WA discovered that IRV doubled the cost of their elections. Minneapolis discovered that one single IRV election cost them $365,000 more than holding two elections 4 years earlier - and that was even adjusting for inflation.

The MD Legislature has done two detailed fiscal studies of IRV (which is two more than our legislature has done) and come up with some costs for IRV - an increase of $3.10 to $3.50 per registered voter that does not include the cost of new election equipment because there is no federally certified voting equipment that will handle IRV. Add to that a pitiful $0.48 per voter for voter education.

MD is a state that's a little smaller than NC, but has a similar diversity in population. Applying those costs to NC would $20 million to implement IRV statewide (not including certified equipment to tabulate the vote - which doesn't exist) and $3 million for voter education every year there is an election. You'd NEVER break even with IRV!

Does it increase voter turnout? No - turnout in the 2009 MN IRV election was the lowest in over 100 years! In San Francisco, turnout is down 100,000 voters since they first began using IRV in 2004.

Joyce McCloy, founder of the N.C. Coalition for Verified Voting, said instant runoff voting requires intense voter education but still leaves an unacceptable percentage of voters confused.

"I don't really hear any demands from voters or political parties to end the runoffs," McCloy said.

Is IRV confusing for voters? Yes - the numbers provided by Dr. Cobb's survey show that 25% of Cary voters and 33% of Hendersonville voters didn't know they'd be expected to rank their choices in the 2007 IRV elections. This were numbers from an exit poll conducted by IRV advocates. Some of those folks failed to follow instructions for educating voters on the way in - in order to provide a more positive outcome for the survey. So it's very likely that a greater percentage of voters might not have understood or been ready for IRV.

Another survey done in 2008 by the Town of Cary (no IRV advocates asking the questions) showed that 30% of voters didn't understand IRV.

It looks like a majority of people understand IRV and were ready to rank candidates, but those numbers are shocking for several reasons. IRV disenfranchised 25% of those Cary voters and 33% of those Hendersonville voters who bothered to show up. 30% of Cary voters didn't understand IRV - so how many people are going to take part in an election they don't understand or know they have to rank candidates in? If we want more voters to participate in elections - we don't want to make it so complicated that voters will stay away.

And these two experiments took place in communities where they have a very educated and literate voting population. Across our state, NC has some terrifyingly low rates of adult literacy in many of our counties. Do we really want to make voting more complicated for the very people that have the greatest stake in voting to elect the right people to make public policy choices to help get these people better education, jobs and opportunities in life?

Is IRV easy to count? No - in fact there are no certified voting systems we can purchase here in NC that are able to tabulate IRV ballots. Our own NC State Board of Elections said as much in March 2007 when they said it was too risky to use IRV in the May 2008 primary election unless we have certified upgrades.

The stuff we have won't do IRV unless we jury-rig the hell out of it and violate all sorts of election law and regulations. There is no way to do all the vote counting at precincts which our law now requires.

How would we tabulate IRV ballots cast on DRE touchscreen voting machines? Simple - you load the 2nd and 3rd column votes into an Microsoft Excel spreadsheet (no federal certification for election use - and how do you verify it's been done right?) and then let the machines do the work. It's impossible to duplicate this procedure by hand as required by NC election law. And whether you vote on paper op-scan ballots or on a DRE machine - each IRV election would have to be done totally separate before doing another one - and recounts would have to wait till ALL IRV contests are settled. Recounts and election audits would be so complicated and expensive that we'd be finding reasons NOT to do them - and then changing our laws to eliminate the need for them.

Election integrity advocates worked very hard to get the Public Confidence in Elections Act passed in 2005, over the objections of electronic voting advocates and others who were also pushing IRV. IRV advocates claim they are only advocating electoral reforms that make the process more democratic, but IRV's complexity tends to incentivize more complex and costly electronic voting equipment that makes IRV easier to administer but less verifiable.

So why are all these editorial boards pushing IRV when it doesn't deliver on promised benefits? Or can't they do critical thinking and just want to throw the baby out with the bathwater?

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