Runoffs for Some But Not For Others?
September 24th, 2009

This post was written by DeNora Getachew, director of public policy and legislative counsel for Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette.

As New York City Democratic voters get ready to vote in the upcoming runoff election on Sept. 29 for their party’s nominees for comptroller and public advocate, you may be thinking, why do I have to vote again only in these two citywide races?

As is often the case, the answer to such questions can be found by consulting the law. Specifically, New Yorks election law requires a runoff “when no candidate for the office of mayor, public advocate or comptroller receives 40 percent or more of the votes cast by the members of a political party for such office in a city-wide primary election.” This law dates back to the early 1970s, after the 1969 election for mayor when a candidate who was considered outside of the mainstream won the Democratic primary with only 33 percent of the vote. The change to require a runoff election if no citywide candidate secures 40 percent of the vote was intended to prevent fringe or less mainstream candidates in a multi-candidate race from winning an election without necessarily proving broad-based support.

In the Sept, 15 primary election, according to preliminary primary election results, Comptroller William Thompson Jr. received 70 percent of the vote, surpassing the 40 percent runoff trigger. But the other races were much closer with Councilmember John Liu securing 37.84 percent and Councilmember David Yassky receiving 30.9 percent for comptroller. For public advocate, Councilmember Bill de Blasio got 32.56 percent and former Public Advocate Mark Green garnered 31.48 percent of the vote, according to recent totals announced by Marcus Cederquist, executive director of the city Board of Elections (final results are expected to be certified today).

Hence New Yorkers have to go back to the polls next Tuesday to re-decide who they want to occupy these two citywide posts. It should be noted that this small act of redoing the election to determine the Democratic nominee is expected to cost the citys taxpayers a cool $14.4 million, including additional public campaign finance matching funds for all four candidates participating in the runoff election.

Query whether the cost of conducting a runoff election is worth the effort, especially in a down economy when a proposal like instant runoff voting, advocated for by groups like FairVote would more-easily solve the problem. (An interesting factoid for wonks: The Motion Picture Academy will use instant runoff voting in 2010 to award the Academy Award for Best Picture.) Instant runoff voting allows people who go to the polls on Election Day to rank the candidates in their order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority vote, then a series of runoffs are simulated using each voters preferences as indicated on the initial ballot. This eliminates a return trip to the poll, saving the taxpayers money that can go toward other much-needed city services.

At the council level, based on the uncertified, preliminary election returns there could be about 10 races that would merit a runoff. So, on the upside, when voters think about going to vote on Sept. 29 in these runoff elections, they should be happy that state law only requires a runoff in citywide elections.

By on September 24, 2009, 10:23 am
In category: Electoral Politics,Gotham City,Governing | 3 Comments »

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3 Responses to “Runoffs for Some But Not For Others?”

  1. Larry Littlefield Says:
    September 24th, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    The question is whether the expensive voting machines NY is buying would enable a first and second choice vote, or prevent it.

    If the machines make a first and second choice voting system impossible, it wouldn’t be an accident. So would the machines allow this?

    If so, raise the threshold to 50 percent, and distribute the second choice votes of candidates who are not in the top two.

  2. Chris Telesca Says:
    September 24th, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    IRV isn’t cheaper than traditional elections and rarely-needed runoff elections if you factor in all the costs involved for voter education, poll worker and election administrator training, etc.

    IRV is too complicated a voting system. Unless you mandate that every voter rank each and every choice in a race, there is a very good chance that you will never get the 50% plus one vote majority winner advocates claim IRV ensures. All you will get is a larger plurality win.

    You couldn’t do IRV with lever machines. And you can’t do hand counting with IRV on DRE machines. Op-scan would be the only way to go, and even one of the best county Election Boards in my state (NC) screwed up an IRV hand tabulation involving a little over 3000 ballots. And the person who was declared the winner had only 1401 out of 3022 first column votes.

    Beware of IRV – it doesn’t deliver on it’s promises!

  3. Joyce McCloy Says:
    September 24th, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    IRV is a very complicated way to hold elections.. IRV is not additive, you can’t just simply add up 2nd and 3rd choice votes. A complex sorting and shuffling program is needed for the voting system software.

    Additionally, you will have to centrally count the IRV votes. That increases risk of fraud or error because the IRV ballots are hauled away from where they are cast and then tallied at a later date.

    Places that Have Ditched Instant Runoff Voting or are Moving to Ditch It


    Aspen to reconsider Instant Runoff Voting this November – City Council cite problems with May election (blog) Aspen voters to vote on how they vote again Wednesday, July 22, 2009 Carolyn Sackariason The Aspen Times Aspen, CO Colorado (news article) Also see Aspen Election Review May 5 2009 IRV single ballot audit unit

    MOVING TO DITCH. BURLINGTON VT. Voters in Burlington are pushing to get IRV repealed. There is a petition drive to get the repealing of IRV on the next possible ballot. WCAX News.

    MOVING TO DITCH. PIERCE COUNTY WASHINGTON. The voters will get to reconsider this issue in November. 63% of Pierce County WA voters don’t like Ranked Choice Voting. That is 56,751 out of 90,738 Pierce County voters who answered a questionnaire included with their ballots that asked, Did you like this new Ranked Choice Voting method? December 7, 2008 The News Tribute. The county could save $600,000 if they scrapped instant runoff voting now.

    DITCHED. BRITISH COLUMBIA (2ND TIME) 61% of the voters gave a thumbs down for STV, Single Transferrable Vote, a ranking method in British Columbia. May 12, 2009.

    DITCHED. CARY NORTH CAROLINA Cary North Carolina rejected a second go at IRV, voted to keep current election method WRAL News Apr. 30 2009 Cary, N.C. The Cary Town Council voted against a proposal Thursday to change the current election method. WRAL News and Protect NC Elections Stop IRV Blog . Also see Cary NC tries IRV, then says no more

    DITCHED. GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY. February 21, 2009 Georgetown University ditches Instant Runoff Voting – cites problems The Hoya and No IRV in NC Blog

    Instant runoff voting was invented in 1870 by American architect William Robert Ware yet has not been widely adopted. IRV has also been rejected by a few jurisdictions that used it. Perhaps the problem is that IRV is loaded with the potential for perverse outcomes and is difficult to count in a transparent fashion (since it it not additive and votes are redistributed).

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