Instant Run-off Voting: End High Cost, Low Turnout Run-Off Elections

Dick Dadey, Executive Director of Citizen Union.

Dick Dadey, Executive Director of Citizen Union.

A runoff election held weeks after a primary election always results in depressingly low voter turnout.  Citizens Union supports instituting an instant runoff voting system where voters rank their preferred candidates on the day of the primary rather than needing to return to cast another ballot on a subsequent election day two to three weeks later.  This would ensure that the winning candidate enjoys broad electoral support, as well as avoiding the logistical and financial burdens of runoff elections that often yield low voter turnout.

Read these numbers associated with the October 1, 2013 run-off election for Public Advocate:  $13 million spent.  Only 202,000 voters voted out of a possible 3,140,000 voters.  The turnout was 6.5%.

In electing the person who will be first in line to be mayor of New York City, the City spent $64 per vote cast in last month’s run-off.  The same poor turnout occurred in run-off elections in 2009 for public advocate and comptroller when the turnouts were just a bit higher 7.6% and 7.9%.  The city has been holding legally required but unnecessary run-off elections on and off for years.

It’s time we ditch expensive, low-turnout runoff elections and give New Yorkers a simple solution that enables more voters the opportunity to weigh in on the candidates running for office.  Elections should strive to elect the candidate with the broadest and strongest support from voters – electing the candidate who secures at least a strong plurality if not a majority of votes.

New York State Election Law requires a primary runoff if no candidate for mayor, public advocate or comptroller in New York City secures forty percent or more in a political party’s primary election. A runoff election ensures that candidates for the top three citywide positions demonstrate a strong base of support within their party.  But that purpose is undermined when a citywide elected official wins a primary election runoff with only a tiny portion of the electorate voting.

Instant Runoff Voting has worked in other American cities like San Francisco and Minneapolis and should replace the separate runoff election system now imposed on New York City.  Change can be accomplished either through state legislation outright or city council action that would require a voter referendum.  Various versions of instant runoff elections exist.  The city council and the state legislature should hold hearings and enact legislation in time for the next City elections in 2017.  Shame on the legislature if it fails to act and the state’s democratically inadequate voting system once again permits a few voters to select New York City’s most important elected officials.

Dick Dadey serves as Executive Director for Citizen Union of the City of New York

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