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Primary runoffs costly, outdated say NY senators

December 14, 2009
Less than 8 percent of New York City's 3 million enrolled Democrats participated in runoff elections this year for comptroller and public advocate, yet they still cost taxpayers $15 million.

Calling them expensive and outdated, Sens. Bill Perkins, D-Manhattan, Joseph P. Addabbo Jr., D-Ozone Park, and Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, have proposed legislation to end the practice of conducting runoff elections in New York City and in villages statewide.

"We should eliminate runoff elections because they undermine democracy with a contrived electoral process," said Perkins. "The threshold number of votes necessary in order to trigger a runoff is arbitrary and unscientific. Further, the expense is unconscionable, especially in these economic times. People should have their opportunity to be heard at the ballot box and whichever candidate gets the most votes is the one who should win. Period."

"The record-low voter turnout and $15 million price tag for this year's runoff election prove that this system no longer works for the people of New York," said Addabbo. "Eliminating runoffs will allow this money to go where it is needed most: to our children, seniors and other essential city services."

Runoff elections occur in New York City two weeks after an initial primary when no candidate receives more than 40 percent of the vote, explained John Conklin, communications director for the state Board of Elections. "That's the way the statute is written and how the Legislature has chosen for it to be."

In villages, runoffs are conducted when there is a tie during an election.

Legislation (S.6248) sponsored by Perkins and co-sponsored by Addabbo, the chairman of the Senate Elections Committee, would eliminate runoff elections for mayor, comptroller and public advocate in New York City. The winner would be the candidate who gets the most votes.

In village elections, a tie would no longer result in a runoff. Under the proposed legislation, a tie would instead be broken by a state Supreme Court judge.

The bill was introduced and referred to the Senate Rules Committee on Oct. 26. There is no same-as bill in the Assembly.

Another proposal (S.3584/A.3281) sponsored by Krueger and by Brian Kavanagh, D-Manhattan, in the Assembly would authorize a pilot program during the 2010, 2011 and 2012 elections under which use of instantaneous runoff voting would be authorized for specific local elections.

The legislation would allow primary voters to indicate their top choices of candidate for an office by ranking them first, second, third, etc, and, as a pilot program, it would give lawmakers a chance "to evaluate the broader application of the instant runoff voting method," according to the sponsor's memo.

If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, then candidates receiving the fewest votes are eliminated, and their votes would go to voters' second choice. The process would continue until one candidate has received 50 percent of the vote.

The pilot program would be applied in elections for school board, county executive, county legislator, city council, town supervisor, town council, village mayor and village trustee.

The bill was introduced and referred to the Senate Elections Committee on March 25. It was amended and recommitted to the Assembly Election Law Committee on March 31.

"Runoffs are extremely costly and only a tiny fraction of voters participate," said Krueger. "If my legislation is passed, New York would be able to use an instant runoff system where if someone doesn't garner a majority of the vote, the second choice vote will be selected at the same time on the same day."

Conklin agreed that there is a high cost to runoff elections.

"It is expensive to run another election two weeks after the primary and then have very little turnout, because you still have citywide elections. All of the machines have to be put out again and set up properly. Inspectors have to be properly trained and paid," said Conklin.

Some advocacy organizations have yet to develop a stance on the issue and are researching both runoff elections and their alternative options in order to better understand what system would best benefit citizens.

"We don't have a position at this time, but we're reviewing it. Particularly in the city," said Adrian Kimbell, New York City elections specialist for the League of Women Voters.

DeNora Getachew, director of public policy and legislative counsel to Citizens Union, an independent, nonpartisan, civic organization that promotes good government and advancements in political reform in the city and state of New York, said that although the organization does not have an official stance on the position yet, she is concerned about eliminating the runoff election method.

Though runoff elections are costly and see low voter turnout, she said she is wary of replacing runoff elections with a new process.

"We are still studying the issue of instantaneous runoff voting, but we are definitely concerned about eliminating runoff elections, which have been around since the 1970s, with a method that may not ensure the elected candidate has a plurality or majority of votes," said Getachew.

New York Public Interest Research Group's elections specialist Neal Rosenstein said the group supports instant runoff voting to replace runoff elections at this time but thinks the topic should be seriously looked at and researched before any major changes are made.

"Making sure that the primary elections represent the will of the voters is particularly important," said Rosenstein.

A review of both the Perkins and Krueger bills are being considered as part of the Senate Election Committee's ongoing efforts to provide oversight of the state's election system and to reform elections laws. The committee has conducted hearings across the state on legislation concerning voter registration, ballot access, voter suppression, poll site management, electronic voting and campaign finance.

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