Thursday, November 04, 2010

The election that could not quit: Court of Appeals

And you thought the election was over Tuesday night? Nope. In one race for the N.C. Court of Appeals seat once held by now-U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Jim Wynn, the only thing Tuesday's election determined is that current incumbent Cressie Thigpen of Raleigh got more votes than the 12 other candidates, but not enough to win the seat. It could be weeks -- maybe after Thanksgiving -- before we know.

This is the race, you may recall, that had 13 candidates vying for the seat in the United States' first statewide use of something called Instant Runoff Voting.  Instead of determining a winner by whichever candidate got the most votes, or by having a runoff that might not have been held until December, the appeals court seat contest allowed voters to cast ballots for their first, second and third choices on the court. If no one got enough to win (50 percent on the first tally), then the second and third choices would be computed to determine the winner.

The worry was that a lot of voters would have a hard time casting ballots in this kind of election. And because there's usually a significant dropoff of voters from the highest-ranked contest on the ballot, such as president or governor or senator, down to the statewide judicial races, some expected that as many as half of N.C. voters would not bother to cast ballots in this race.

That fear was misplaced. While there was indeed a falloff of voters from the 2,642,527 in the U.S. Senate contest, as shown on the State Board of Elections website Thursday, to 1,931,382 in the Instant Runoff Voting race with 13 candidates, the fact is that that race drew more voters than two other contests for Court of Appeals.  The race between incumbent Judge Rick Elmore and law clerk Steven Walker, which Elmore won, drew 1,767,451 voters, while the race between incumbent Judge Martha Geer and challenger Dean Poirier, which Geer won, drew 1,863,016.  One other race, between incumbent Judge Ann Marie Calabria and District Judge Jane Gray, which Calabria won, drew 1,939,616.

One reason the Instant Runoff Voting race drew more voters, rather than much fewer as some had feared, is probably the fact that there were so many choices. Rather than discouraging voters entirely, it may have made voters look for someone they knew -- or at least had heard of.  Thigpen led with about 20 percent of the vote; former Court of Appeals Judge Doug McCullough drew about 15 percent; and lawyer Chris Dillon came in third with about 10 percent of the vote.


Anonymous said...

>> it may have made voters look for someone they knew

Or, more likely, someone they look like. Mr. Thigpen was the only black candidate, and the state sent out voter guides with pictures of all the candidates.

I don't know if Mr. Thigpen is the best candidate (I voted for Mr. Garner based on his information in the guide), but it would be disingenuous to think that demographics weren't a contributing factor to his coming in first against 12 white candidates.

Jim Pfaff said...

We used this method once in choosing a trustee in our church. With only about 100 voters, and 6 candidates, it took us almost 18 hours to pick a winner: the guy who came in second on almost all of the ballots. We never used it again.
So Thanksgiving is an estimate far beyond reasonable expectations.

Chris Telesca said...

You must not have been at my Wake County precinct. I worked there as a poll greeter for most of the day, and as a Democratic Party poll observer. Over half the voters I talked with had no idea that there were 13 candidates in one race, and the majority of voters were vocally unhappy with IRV.

I didn't worry about the Republican voters, but I spent well over half my time explaining IRV to Democratic voters and to those UNA voters who wanted to vote for Democratic candidates. That is because over half the voters who showed up at the polls didn't know they'd be expected to rank their choices.

The Republicans were claiming this was a Democratic plot to keep a Republican judge from winning. Everyone complained that they spent way too much time on that part of the ballot - one voter felt she spent half her time on IRV alone. We had 26 spoiled ballots, a much higher than normal number. There were 8 over-votes in the 26 non-IRV races on the ballot, but 28 over-votes in the one single IRV race.

Oh - and if you think that these voters were upset about having to cast their votes in an IRV contest - they were disgusted that the SBOE has known since 2006 that they might have to do county-wide or state-wide judicial IRV elections, and chose to do nothing about it until the last minute. The Republicans were especially infuriated that Republican members of the State Board of Elections were the ones who pushed the "bending" of state and federal election law to use uncertified software to count the IRV.

They all hoped that this would be the last time any of us would have to waste so much time explaining how to vote in a contest - instead of asking voters to vote for our candidates. Having to be told how to vote in some tricky contest insulted their intelligence!

Anonymous said...

Poster #1, posting the truth will make you a racist. Heck, Alvin Green somehow rcvd 350,000 votes and the man is incoherent fool. What does that say about our voters?

Jerome Williams said...

Mr./Ms. "Anonymous" is just another disappointed racist. I've known Dan Garner for decades and he's a fine lawyer and a fine human being. He would be embarrassed as I am to know that his name is being used by some "Anonymous" person who wants to credit Judge Thigpen's success to his race. To suggest that people voted for this distinguished man because of some black peoples' conspiracy is shabby and shameful.

Chris Telesca said...

Sorry Jack - most people voted in the IRV race not out of hope but out of fear of the unknown. This was a voting method that people were afraid of. They didn't know why we were doing it, they didn't know how it would be counted - they were just scared that if they didn't vote - that someone would win by some trickery. My precinct was heavily Republican, and they were convinced it was a Democratic plot!

george said...

All 4 court of appeals races had relatively low turnout. The IRV one came in 2nd of the 4. If we have to choose among them then it looks to me as though name-recognition is the deciding factor. I am a well-educated voter (my father was an elected superior court judge, so I had reason to care about the process) and the race that Betts identified as least-participated-in is one that EVEN I almost failed to participate in BECAUSE I HAD NEVER HEARD OF either candidate. So maybe publicity around this race did cause more people to hear about Thigpen. But one thing that is NOT "maybe" is that most black voters knew that they had a chance to vote for a black person in this race, and THAT is surely worth 200,000 votes statewide by comparison with somebody (like Ellmore) that we'd never heard of.

We did not need the state voter guide with a picture to tell us that Judge Thigpen was black. Judge Wynn's 14-yr odyssey up from this seat to federal court is an epic that plenty of us had already been following for a long time -- we mostly already knew who the governor had appointed to replace him and why.

The real issue for "turnout" in this race is the number of voters who think they turned out BUT DIDN'T, because their vote is going to get thrown away. Any voter who couldn't manage to pick either McCullough or Thigpen even after 3 tries is one who basically might as well have stayed home.
Right now, there is a real risk that "thrown away" may get more votes THAN THE WINNER :-(.
And it is a near certainty that more votes will be thrown away than THE MARGIN of victory. If analysis could reveal that more of those voters preferred the loser, then they might still cry "unfair", but they might also get rebutted, e.g., "I don't see why you'd expect us to count your FOURTH choice as much as a first".

Anonymous said...

I think the voter guide that was mailed prior to the election may have helped increase voter participation at the bottom of the ballot. It was a great tool to help voters learn about the candidates and remind them that this part of the ballot is important too.

As for the statement in the other post that race drove Mr. Thigpen to the top of the heap, the poster is probably trying to imply that all the blacks (and softy liberals) voted for the lone black candidate. The poster ignores the fact that perhaps all the whites, in trying to avoid a black candidate, split their vote. Perhaps the theories aren't mutually exclusive, but they sure seem outdated. For some people, no matter how well qualified, a successful black (or hispanic, or female, or ...) will always be the product of some affirmative action.

Janice at Blessed Bead Jewelry said...

We do not know how many people only voted for their first choice. We do not know how many spoiled ballots resulted from this experiment. We do know that even the Board of Elections is nervous about counting votes cast in this way, because there is no federally certified software to do it. I understand the "instant runoff" is going to be done by Excel spreadsheet, and Larry Leake of the Board of Elections asserts that "the computer experts acknowledge there are potential problems with the system." There is evidence that this type of voting can return a winner that did not win by a majority. Counting votes in this way makes mistakes likely and hard to catch. Who needs it?