Conventional wisdom has it that Democrats are so strong and Republicans so weak, we’ll know who our next mayor and most of the City Council will be after the June 22 primaries. The general election is just pro forma. But it could take weeks to actually get the primary results.
There are several reasons for that, including the number of candidates who are running, which could help make some races extremely close, the city Board of Elections’ rules for counting absentee ballots and, above all, the new ranked-choice voting system. It’s called “instant runoffs,” but that doesn’t mean it brings anything like instant results.
The complex RCV system, in which voters pick up to five candidates for one seat in their order of preference, was first tested last February in the special election for the 31st City Council District, in Southeast Queens. On election night, Selvena Brooks-Powers was leading, but not by enough to be declared the winner outright. So the RCV scheme kicked in, with the biggest loser’s votes being discarded and the second choices of those who backed the last-place finisher adding to their tallies. That went on until someone got over 50 percent of the reconfigured vote. After nearly a month, a winner was declared ... Selvena Brooks-Powers.
We can expect such delays all over Queens. There are several Democratic primary races here with a half-dozen or more candidates on the ballot, and one, for the seat held by Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, features 15 names. Some candidates are far stronger than others, but in many races, it could be quite a while before one of them gets above 50 percent. And it may not be the person who got the most votes in the first round, which many voters will find unfair. In the race for mayor, a baker’s dozen of hopefuls are running.
On top of that, the BOE insists on waiting a full week after an election to begin counting absentee ballots. That wastes time and can fuel suspicion among voters if there’s a change in who is ahead. Recall that nearly two years ago it took several weeks to determine that Melinda Katz had won the Democratic primary for Queens district attorney. And that was before RCV came along to complicate matters.
And all of this has gotten far more expensive thanks to the city’s overly generous matching funds system, which gives candidates $8 in taxpayer money for every eligible $1 they raise. Eight to one! Not only is that very expensive, it’s offensive to people who don’t believe they should be forced to pay for the campaigns of candidates they disagree with and it opens the door to widespread fraud. Specifically, it encourages the use of straw donors because candidates must raise funds from a certain number of people to qualify. So instead of one person from a household donating, say, $400, you have four people giving $100 each. And we’re supposed to believe that’s real? Then that $400 turns into $3,600. And we’re supposed to believe that’s fair? When the matching funds program began in 1988, it was on a one-to-one ratio, $1 given for every $1 raised. Now it’s eight times as shady.
The system also takes New York taxpayer money and ships it out of state. One failed candidate in a Queens special election this year spent more than $95,000 on a South Carolina-based consulting firm, as revealed by the Queens Eagle. The amount of matching funds should be cut back and the use of the money limited to downstate New York.
But for now we’re stuck with this system, all of us paying for vanity candidates’ hopeless campaigns that weigh down the ballot. At the least, we hope the BOE is staffing up to prepare for June, and that enough voters know even what RCV is to ensure the vote is fair and the results accepted by all. It’s enough to make you wonder if these reforms, meant to make our system more democratic, now need reform.