North Carolina Tries 'Instant Runoff Voting'

The logic of general elections is simple: winner takes all. This, of course, can encourage nasty campaigning—and at the end of a race with more than two candidates, the victor often wins with only a plurality (not a majority) of support. Searching for a solution, a handful of cities have experimented with an alternative approach: instant run-off voting, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no one receives more than half of the first-place votes, a winner is picked by tallying second and third choices. (You may not get your first pick, but chances are the winner won't be your worst nightmare.)

On Nov. 2, this approach will be used for the first time in a statewide election. It's a small race—North Carolina court of appeals judge—but proponents hope it will encourage the more than 20 states that have mulled the system since 2000. The biggest hurdle has been electronic voting machines, which mostly lack compatible tabulating software. But where instant runoffs have been tested, they've softened the tone of campaigns. Second place, it turns out, does count for something.