This year’s primary election, with such a low turnout -â€“ 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
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 -â€“ or even wants -â€“ 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
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.
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
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
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
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 â€“ or other such circumstances â€“ 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.