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Another Weird Election

by Doug Israel and Amy Ngai, Sep 15, 2005

This year’s primary election, with such a low turnout -– fewer than 500,000 voters out of some 2.6 million registered Democrats showed up at the polls -- should have been an easy one to handle. There were few long lines and no widespread reports of machine malfunctions.

But then things turned weird.

It was weird enough that Democratic mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer, who needed 40 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff, got stuck at 39.949 percent when the preliminary tally was finished by midnight. He needed just 252 more votes. Election officials informed the public that an official count might take until the following week.

Weirder still was what happened the next day, after second-place finisher Anthony Weiner conceded the nomination to Ferrer. If many saw this as a statesmanlike gesture, the Board of Elections saw it as irrelevant. If Ferrer didn’t get his 40 percent when the votes were officially counted, election officials said, he was going to face the strange prospect of a runoff against a rival who has publicly thrown his support behind him. More than 6,000 voting machines would have to be sent back to the more than 1,400 polling places, and poll workers rehired, to run a special election on September 27 to which nobody would show up, at a cost election officials put at about $10 million. It was, they said, the law.

Is this kind of weirdness peculiar to New York? Does it indicate some larger failure? Is there a better way to do things?

Runoffs -- Well-Intentioned, But Sometimes Disastrous

A New York State law (in pdf format) requires that New York City (and only New York City) hold a runoff election in citywide races if no candidate receives 40 percent of the votes cast in the primary. Runoffs are intended to bring extra legitimacy to a candidate, and are generally supported by good government groups.

New York City’s runoffs, however, have also resulted in divisive head-to-head campaigns that have left the winner damaged in the general election. This was demonstrated in 2001 when Mark Green defeated Ferrer in the Democratic runoff, then lost to Bloomberg in the general election.

Fewer people remember a similar debacle caused by the threat of a runoff four years earlier. As the Times recounted, Ruth Messenger had not reached the magic 40 percent until the official count was finished eight days after the primary. The second-place finisher, the Reverend Al Sharpton, sued. Though unsuccessful, the bad feelings did not help Messenger in her long-shot bid against Rudolph Giuliani.

A runoff seems particularly unappealing this year, since the Board of Elections will spend millions of dollars of taxpayer money to hold a completely meaningless election in which neither candidate expects -– or even wants -– voter turnout, and where the winner is predetermined.

An Alternative -- Instant Runoff Voting

Other jurisdictions have conducted runoffs while managing to avoid these shortcomings through a system called Instant Runoff Voting. In this system, the voters rank their preferences when they vote in the primaries. If no clear majority is achieved on first-choice votes, the candidate with the minimum amount of votes is eliminated, with his or her votes reallocated to the voters’ second choice. If there is still no victor, election officials go through the count again with voters’ third choices, and so on, until a candidate reaches the threshold for victory.

Instant Runoff Voting is more common internationally than it is in the United States, but other places around the country are adopting the system, including San Francisco. An organization called Fair Vote has launched a campaign it calls "IRV America" (IRV for Instant Runoff Voting). On its Web site it points out that the International Olympic Committee chose London as the host city for the 2012 Games of the XXX Olympiad "after four rounds of voting using a method similar to IRV," and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has used the system as well.

Proponents recommend this system for New York City, saying that it not only lowers the cost of citywide races, but also that it has reduced negative campaign tactics. "Instant runoffs encourage candidates to run high-minded races, because they need to simultaneously court voters for their second- and third-choice votes," Mark Green wrote in an article for the Daily News. "So instead of seeking a plurality by only working their respective racial, religious or community niches, candidates have to seek votes outside their own particular constituency. That avoids the scenario of a winner who gets elected by a sliver of voters only because the majority was divided among more generally favored candidates."

Critics of the system say it’s too complicated, and in effect disenfranchises those (including some immigrants) who have trouble understanding it.

Although a bill (A3510) has been proposed in the state legislature to bring instant runoffs to New York, it has yet to gain support and is currently sitting in committee.

The Recounts

Given the quandary of the mayoral runoff, few paid attention to the problems in other races. The preliminary tallies in two races made them too close to call by the day after primary day: Diana Johnson led Margarita LĂłpez Torres in the Democratic nomination for Surrogate’s Court by 80 votes. The campaign for the city council nomination in District 8 in East Harlem was even narrower -- front-runner Melissa Mark-Viverito led second-place finisher Felipe Luciano by a mere 16 votes.

A recount for the Surrogate’s Court race was announced less than twenty-four hours after the polls had closed.

A recount is not necessarily a sign of failure. But it often is. In 2000, while the nation waited to find out the outcome of the presidential election, New Yorkers had to wait even longer for paper ballots to be counted to determine the winner of the state senate race in District 26 on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. (Republican incumbent Roy Goodman beat Democratic challenger Liz Krueger). The vote tally was held up by reports of broken down machines and incompetent poll workers. Many advocates came down hard on the Board of Elections for failing to prepare adequately for Election Day.

Improvements have been made; more could be made. Both are the case in the operation of the poll worker program. As the city phases out its old machines in the next two years, having well-trained poll workers becomes all the more important to avoid malfunction and delay in the election system.

But delay is not always a bad thing. It is of course heretic to say this in a city where people would quickly fall into despair if forced to use a rotary phone. But there are times when the electoral system sacrifices speed for increased safeguards against voter disenfranchisement.

“We want to ensure that we give voters of New York real numbers,” said John Ravitz, executive director of the Board of Elections, before this year’s primary.

The morning after Election Day the Board of Elections begins approving and counting all the paper ballots it has received. These include ”affidavit ballots” filed by voters whose names did not appear on the voter rolls, and so were not permitted to vote on the machine; absentee ballots mailed by those who couldn’t make it to the polls; and emergency ballots that allowed voters to cast a vote when broken or missing machines – or other such circumstances – prevented them from voting.

These are all important ways to make sure that every vote counts. They take time. The law requires that absentee ballots continue to be counted until the Tuesday after the election. In the Brooklyn Surrogate’s Court race, supporters of candidate Margarita Lopez-Torres say that most absentee ballots come from the so-called brownstone belt, where they feel Lopez-Torres has a large enough advantage to swing the vote her way.

Doug Israel is the public policy director of Citizens Union Foundation (publishers of Gotham Gazette), where Amy Ngai is program associate.