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Queens Chronicle

City primary runoffs could be axed, BOE suggests

State Legislature would have to vote on change for city races

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Posted: Thursday, January 31, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 11:07 am, Thu Feb 7, 2013.

With an eye on this year’s citywide elections, the city Board of Elections is considering eliminating the expensive runoffs that often yield low turnouts.

According to the city’s election law, runoffs are scheduled for primary races in citywide races if no candidate receives 40 percent or more in the first round.

The board mulled at least two ideas on how to change the law, including instituting instant runoff voting. In that scenario, voters rank their preference among a list of candidates and the top-two vote getters then compete for the second-place votes of those who chose the eliminated candidates first. The method allows for a runoff without the need for a separate election a few weeks later.

For example, a voter would rank his or her choice among three candidates. If Candidate A and Candidate C both get the highest and second highest totals, that would eliminate Candidate B. Then the second choices of those who voted for B would be split among A and C. The candidate with the highest number of votes would win.

The BOE is also open to the idea of eliminating the runoff entirely and allowing the victor to be whichever candidate wins a plurality in the primary election.

But some say that would lead to a winning candidate being elected with a minority of the vote, especially in races where one party is favored over another in the general election, as is the case with many city contests.

With a number of candidates vying for citywide office, the runoff could play a factor in the ultimate winner. At least five Democratic candidates are planning to run for mayor, meaning the Democratic nominee could emerge with just 21 percent of the vote if there is no runoff.

In 2009, both the public advocate and comptroller races went into runoffs. In the former race, only 233,000 of the more than 2 million registered Democrats turned out for the runoff in which Bill de Blasio defeated former Public Advocate Mark Green with more than 60 percent of the vote after outpolling Green by 1 percent in the primary. About 241,000 people turned out for the runoff between John Liu and David Yassky for comptroller that year.

The runoffs are only mandated for city elections and include mayor, public advocate and comptroller primaries. They are usually held two weeks after the original primary election at the end of September. The dates for the 2013 primaries have not yet been finalized.

Valerie Vazquez, a spokeswoman for the city BOE, said changes to election law would need to be made at the state level.

State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach), who chaired the Senate Elections Committee from 2009 to 2011 and chaired the same committee in the City Council, said he supported the idea of eliminating the runoff.

“It’s a very costly endeavor and can happen often in the city,” Addabbo said. “I had advocated we need to do away with runoffs. Certainly given the budgetary situation in the Board of Elections and city, we should do away with runoffs.”

Addabbo said he has sponsored a bill with Sen. Bill Perkins (D-Manhattan) that would eliminate the runoff.

“I don’t know if we could justify spending hundreds of millions of dollars on runoffs when you have schools and senior centers facing budget cuts,” he said. “Would you rather pay for a runoff or pay for a senior center or school?”

Similar legislation passed the Senate but not the Assembly in 2009, and died in committee in the upper house in 2011.

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