Published: Apr 04, 2009 12:30 AM
Modified: Apr 04, 2009 12:47 AM
With the City Council about to debate how it gets elected, citizens this week were warned of "screwy results."
They also heard pitches for -- and additional warnings about -- an election method that isn't even on the table.
"There is no single best electoral system," said Donald L. Horowitz, a Duke law and political science professor. "There are many to choose from. It all depends."
Horowitz joined UNC law and government professor Robert P. Joyce and Torrey Dixon, director of the electoral-reform group FairVote North Carolina, on a panel Wednesday night at the Durham County Library.
The League of Women Voters sponsored the forum in advance of Monday's public hearing on changing Durham's municipal elections from its current non-partisan primary and non-partisan general election method to a single-election, non-partisan plurality method.
But much of the discussion pertained to "instant-runoff voting." In that system voters rank candidates as their first, second and/or third choice and winners are determined by combined results if none wins a majority.
Instant runoff also offers the cost-saving advantage of a single election, and Dixon said voters who've tried it generally like it. North Carolina is allowing it as an experiment, and Cary and Hendersonville have tried the system. Hendersonville is continuing its trial, but Cary abandoned it after one election, having found it a cumbersome process requiring both machine and hand counting.
"I'm not convinced it's a good idea for Durham," said City Councilman Mike Woodard.
The Durham County Board of Elections suggested the city change its election method to save money.
"We thought it was very simple," Elections Director Mike Ashe said Thursday. "Durham is broke, it needs money and here is an authorized method that would save money."
Making the switch would save city taxpayers about $175,000 per municipal-election year. Even though instant-runoff voting would also save money, the elections board did not suggest it as an option.
"We are aware that IRV is a pilot," Ashe said. "It may go into law. It may die. The pilot may be extended. ... We're waiting to see."
All three panelists expressed reservations about the plurality voting method the elections board did suggest, some more strongly than others.
"Plurality has risks," Horowitz said.
"Whoever gets the most votes, wins," said Joyce. "That is the simplest, most straightforward and cheapest option.
"It is also the option that has the greatest likelihood of producing some kind of screwy result, where somebody who is real popular with a small group of people gets more votes than anybody else, but not very many votes," he continued. "And now you've got a real screwball on the city council."
Dixon, whose group encourages instant-runoff voting, said plurality voting is "the worst possible scenario."
"A candidate detested by the majority of the voters can win."
After the forum, League of Women Voters state president Judie Burke thanked the panelists for "making clear a very muddy situation."
"No comment," City Councilman Howard Clement said on his way out.
Clement did, though, invite the panelists to share their perspectives at Monday's council hearing.
"We need to hear all options," he said.