While Bill de Blasio’s win in the Democratic contest for mayor was the big story out of New York on election day earlier this month, there were other national implications: one of our greatest cities showcased why it’s time to leave 19th century democracy behind. Election officials had to haul old lever machines out of storage, with highly predictable troubles involving broken machines and frustrated voters. In an equally outdated voting rule, voters could only indicate support for one candidate in each race, rather than rank them in order of preference — meaning that instead of a primary winner being determined on election day, there now needs to be an additional run-off election held in the city a few weeks later. When you can only choose one person in a multi-candidate field, the candidate with the most votes can earn well under 50 percent. (On Tuesday, Boston had a mayoral race in which the top vote-getter had just 18 percent; that city will have a runoff between the top two finishers.)
In New York’s citywide primaries, candidates must earn at least 40 percent support to avoid a runoff. While de Blasio escaped a runoff, one race did not: the Democratic primary for de Blasio’s old public advocate job is going to a runoff between Letitia James and Daniel Squadron on October 1. The race has predictably grown more negative. Turnout will plunge, as most military and overseas voters won’t get their runoff ballots in time. Oh, and taxpayers will be out some $20 million.
None of it was necessary. Both James and Squadron ironically are among a rapidly growing number of New Yorkers who back the instant runoff form of ranked choice voting (RCV). RCV is not a new idea in New York; the city council and school board used to be elected with a ranking form of proportional representation called the “single transferable vote.” In 2010, the New York state senate passed Sen. Liz Krueger’s bill to have a three-year trial period in which more city and county races would be conducted by RCV elections. The same year, the New York City Charter Commission gave serious consideration to ranked choice voting for citywide primaries; a commission staff report recommended that it go on the November 2010 ballot, concluding it would avoid the drop in turnout for runoff elections, allow political participation without fear of “spoilers,” and save the city the costs of an additional election.