Instant runoff voting saves time, money

By Mark Green
Published April 25th 2005 in New York Daily News
All 10 candidates running for the Democratic nomination for Manhattan borough president share one strategy: get 20% of the 20% of Democrats who are likely to show up for the primary.

Since there's no runoff and no competitive general election, an aspiring borough president needs only 30,000 votes of nearly 1 million registered voters to win. With only one in 30 voters casting his or her ballot for the winner, this election mocks the democratic ideal of majority rule.

One reform that has been adopted in other cities and states - instant runoff voting - would bring more fairness to our city elections and to the way we choose the leaders of our so-called dysfunctional state government.

We already hold some runoff elections for citywide offices in New York City. I was in one for mayor in 2001, and another may occur this September.

Instant runoffs go a step further, completing a primary and runoff election in one shot. In an instant runoff vote, voters rank candidates in preferential order, and if no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, a "runoff vote" is electronically tabulated in which the candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated. When just two remain, the person with an absolute majority wins.

While IRV would save taxpayers millions of dollars through the elimination of an additional round of elections, the real advantages are the ones that advance voter enfranchisement. Instant runoffs encourage candidates to run high-minded races, because they need to simultaneously court voters for their second- and third-choice votes. 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.

Instant runoffs also can level the general election playing field when the challenger's party has an additional - and often divisive - runoff contest while the incumbent saves money, face and energy. On Election Day, IRV frees voters to vote their consciences without the worry of wasting their vote on a long-shot spoiler candidate like a Ralph Nader since their ballots will be recast for their next choices if their first loses.

Last November, San Francisco voters elected seven City Council members in one IRV election - saving the city $1.2 million dollars and saving voters from obnoxious mudslinging ads.

Some minority politicians worry that minority candidates can win a plurality but not a majority and thus want to stick with the status quo. But David Dinkins beat Ed Koch with an absolute majority in a 1989 primary. And the coalition that supported IRV in San Francisco included a large number of minority groups. In the 1990s, before New York City's community school boards were abolished, Asian-Americans were able to win their first ever legislative offices in New York State when elections included a ranked-choice system very similar to IRV.

The Assembly should pass bills 3509 or 3510 to require IRV in all party primaries and as an option for general elections in New York City and the state.

Green, public advocate for New York City (1994-2001), is president of The New Democracy Project.