NYC, meet IRV
After a very close mayoral primary, electoral reformers think New York City should switch to instant runoff voting.

By Clinton Hendler
Published September 21st 2005 in Mother Jones
Last week New York City came close to playing out its own version of an increasingly familiar American post-election ritual, one featuring painstaking recounts, outstanding absentee ballots, and partisan lawsuits. Election-night tallies in the city's Democratic mayoral primary, a six-way race, put frontrunner Fernando Ferrer 223 votes short of the tally needed—in this case, 40 percent of the vote—to avoid a runoff election with his closest challenger, Congressman Anthony Weiner. On Monday, however, after machine totals were rechecked and absentee and provisional ballots counted, Ferrer emerged the clear winner, about 720 votes over the mark.

Nearly a week before the final count was in, Weiner had already declared that, in the name of party unity, he would call off his campaign. But even so, the City's Board of Elections insisted that if Ferrer fell short of the 40 percent mark a runoff would be legally required. The board had prepared to spend up to $12 million to pay poll workers, print ballots, and deploy voting machines—all to administer what would have been an uncontested election.

Electoral reformers have seized on New York's near-miss to demand that the city adopt an alternative system called instant runoff voting (IRV). IRV allows voters to rank candidates for office by order of preference. If no candidate gets an outright majority of first-choice votes, the candidate coming in last is eliminated. Votes for that candidate are then transferred to each voter's next choice. The process is repeated until one candidate wins a majority—no additional runoff elections are needed.

Proponents say IRV preserves the benefits of the present runoff system while avoiding the costs, which aren't limited to time and money. Runoffs tend to attract much lower turnout than first-round races, not least because the latter often share a ballot with higher-profile state and federal elections. (In New York, in 2001, voter turnout decreased by 72 percent between the primary and the runoff. And San Francisco, IRV's biggest success story to date, adopted the system in 2002 in part because of low turnout in its runoffs.)

The most vocal champion of IRV is the Center for Voting and Democracy, a national election reform organization that played a big role in getting it adopted in San Francisco. Rob Richie, the Center's executive director, says now that New York's voters and politicians have seen the perils of the current system, they're more likely to adopt IRV. He also thinks the chances for IRV got better after recent attention to the financial cost of holding a separate runoff election. "It's great to be able to say you'll save a bunch of money," says Richie—which was a key selling-point in San Francisco as well.

San Francisco is not the only recent victory for IRV supporters. Ferndale, a city of 22,105 in the Detroit suburbs, adopted IRV last November. Vermont, where Democrats have accused the state's left-leaning Progressive Party of "spoiling" elections by garnering votes that might otherwise go to their candidates, has long been flirting with IRV. This spring voters in Burlington, the state's largest city, choose to use IRV for its mayoral elections. Vermont's Secretary of State supports using IRV for state offices; so did Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean when he was the state's governor, and during his presidential campaign.

But IRV has its opponents, too. Steps towards IRV were quashed in Roseville, Minnesota, after a right-to-life group argued that the system gave voters who initially choose the less-successful candidates more votes. If, for instance, your first choice initially came in last, then your vote would be transferred immediately; otherwise you don't get to transfer your vote until your candidate is eliminated. Others say the system is just too complicated for voters to understand, a point that even the Center for Voting and Democracy partly concedes: When, in 2002, Alaskan voters decided against adopting the IRV, the Center ascribed the result in part to voter confusion.

But that was not the case for San Franciscans who voted with IRV in the election for their Board of Supervisors (essentially, the city council). A new study based on exit polls from that election shows that San Francisco voters across all political affiliations, races, education and income levels preferred IRV, albeit to different degrees. According to Richard DeLeon of San Francisco State University, the study's author, "even those that came in opposing it, 15 percent were persuaded the other direction" after having tried the system. Pre-IRV concerns about comprehension were misplaced; after their first experience with IRV, 88 percent of voters said they understood the system "perfectly" or "fairly" well.

Douglas Kellner, who serves as the Senior Democratic Commissioner on New York City's Board of Elections, says that from what he's seen "the San Francisco model works." He'd like to see it used in New York City elections—and not just for party primaries before city-wide elections. He points out that on Tuesday many Democratic candidates for other offices in city government won their nominations with mere pluralities, rather than outright majorities. The Democratic nomination for Manhattan Borough President—the island's highest (although largely ceremonial) post—went to Scott Stringer, a candidate who received only 26 percent of the votes cast. New York City Public Advocate Mark Green, who narrowly lost the 2001 mayoral race, is also a supporter. So, too, is Chris Owens, a longtime Democratic activist who is currently running to succeed his father, Major Owens, as one of Brooklyn's Congressional Representatives.

Neal Rosenstein, government reform coordinator for the New York Public Interest Research Group, thinks IRV "would definitely be a solution" for the city. His organization is working to ensure that as New York, like many states, replaces its older mechanical voting equipment, the new machines are able to administer a wide variety of voting systems, including IRV. It's a issue, Rosenstein says, "the city and state legislature need to be paying attention to."

Clinton Hendler is an editorial intern at Mother Jones.