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City's Pricey Primary Runoffs Could be Eliminated Under City Council Plan

 Councilman Brad Lander's bill would resolve close primary elections with one day of voting, saving the city millions of dollars.
Councilman Brad Lander's bill would resolve close primary elections with one day of voting, saving the city millions of dollars.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

CIVIC CENTER — A bill to end the city's current primary runoff system could put an end to the pricey, low-turnout process by the next mayoral election in 2017, potentially saving the city millions, advocates say.

Many voters and elected officials were outraged last fall when the city had to spend more than $13 million dollars on a single runoff between then-City Councilwoman Letitia James and State Sen. Dan Squadron — after neither candidate got more than the required 40 percent of the vote for Democratic Public Advocate.

Under the new system, primary voters would rank candidates in order of preference in a process known as instant-runoff voting, or IRV, in the voting booth on primary day. The candidate with the least support gets dropped, and the vote for that candidate gets transferred to the voter's next choice. The process continues until a candidate reaches the 40 percent threshold.

“There is value in making sure whoever wins a primary has real, strong support,” said Brooklyn City Councilman Brad Lander, who introduced the bill to implement IRV this week.

Fewer than 203,000 voters turned out for the James-Squadron runoff, less than half of the already-low primary turnout of 530,000 votes, officials said. In addition, advocates of the new bill say, James beat Squadron with nearly 60 percent of the runoff vote, after having bested all candidates on primary night with 36.1 percent of the vote.

If IRV had been in effect, her primary night vote could have been sufficient to catapult her to victory without the pricey runoff vote, advocates say. It would have also reduced the strain on agencies including the NYPD, which had to deploy officers to oversee the voting, the Department of Education and the Housing Authority which lent space for voting machines, advocates say.

“Instant-runoff voting is the easiest solution to [make sure] that the person who is nominated by the party has substantial support, without incurring the added expense of runoff elections and without putting the city Board of Elections in a very difficult position to administer the election,” said Douglas Kellner, a commissioner for the state Board of Elections who supports the move to IRV.

Lander said talks with his fellow councilmembers have been positive. A recent briefing with members and their staff has helped Lander bring 27 other members on board for the bill.

“You can see how easy it is,” Lander said about his presentation, where he showed members how the process of ranking candidates would actually work. “It’s a simple, intuitive thing once people see it.”

While the bill has broad support among the council, it remains to be seen whether it will have support from Mayor de Blasio.

Last October, de Blasio expressed criticisms about the IRV system during an interview with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer.

“What I think is problematic about it is that you have a very different discussion when it comes down to two candidates,” de Blasio said the day after James’ runoff win. “There’s something about IRV that doesn’t fully represent the choices that people need to make in real time.”

Alex Camarda, Director of Public Policy with the good-government group Citizens Union—which strongly supports the move to IRV—said more recent conversations with the mayor indicate a shift in favor of the new voting system.

“Obviously there were concerns voiced by the mayor last year,” Camarda said. “It seems they’re a bit more comfortable with it now. I hope that will hold going forward.”

A spokeswoman from the mayor's office confrimed that the administration had been contacted about the bill and is reviewing the proposal.

IRV advocates agree that de Blasio has a limited amount of time to get on board if the change has a chance of being in effect in time for 2017.

Lander and others want the referendum this year, when the Governor’s race is expected to bring out more voters, compared to next year, when no city, state or federal elections are scheduled. Having the referendum in 2016 wouldn’t give the city Board of Election enough time to change the voting system, let alone educate the public.

“This really is the year to do it,” Lander said.

The council will likely hold a hearing on the legislation in the coming weeks, according to Lander. While Albany isn’t required to weigh in for the city to make the change, the city’s voters will still need to pass a referendum in order for it to take effect.