Making Our Votes Really Count

Nicholas Jahr // Published October 1, 2008 in Brooklyn Rail
As term limits and elections loom—with much of the current City Council scheduled for eviction in 2009—Mayor Bloomberg (along with more than a few members of the council) has indulged in an achingly long flirtation with the idea of repealing the limits that stand between him and a third term. But New York’s democracy also faces important long-term structural challenges.

The election may not be until November, but back on June 3rd, Republican Anthony Como became the newest member of the New York City Council. Bet you didn’t even know there was an election. The seat’s previous occupant, Dennis Gallagher, copped a plea on rape charges in April. Turnout in the Queens district was barely a tenth of the registered voters. A mere 31.5% of that fraction backed Como in a four-way race; he edged out the runner-up by less than a single percentage point. Even though 69% of the relatively few voters who made it to the polls favored someone else, Como is now their representative.

This is just one of the inevitable weaknesses of New York City’s plurality, winner-take-all elections, a weakness endemic to the American electoral system. Como is in curious company, including both current Texas Governor Rick Perry, who claimed his office in a four-way race with only 39% of the vote, and Bill Clinton, who thanks to an assist from Ross Perot first ascended to the presidency with the support of about 24% of eligible voters. And then there’s the outgoing Bush files, who arguably rode Nader’s margin to victory. Quietly, without noticing, we’ve become a country governed by plurality rule.

Now New York could lead the way in restoring rule by the majority. Elections like Como’s “are slam dunk cases for instant run-off,” says Rob Richie, Executive Director of FairVote, an organization that works for election reform at every level of government. “We’ve seen several elections like that and given how hard it is to dislodge people once they get in, it seems like a really good way to get the conversation started.” FairVote recently issued a strategy paper exploring how the city’s elections might be transformed. The report lays out two primary options: instant run-off voting (IRV) and proportional representation (PR). The minutiae of these reforms can seem as dry as cornflakes in the desert. But this is what democracy really looks like.

For starters, FairVote has recommended introducing IRV for special elections, absentee balloting, and citywide primaries (the races for Mayor, Public Advocate, and Comptroller). Under IRV, voters rank candidates in their order of preference. If no candidate wins a majority (51% or more of the vote) on the first count, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and that candidate’s votes are reallocated to those voters’ second-choices.

Tallying votes in this way doesn’t necessarily change the result. In the special election for the 30th District, it seems safe to assume that if their first choices had remained the same, many of the 27% of voters who chose old guard Republican Thomas Ognibene (who held the seat until he was expelled by term limits in ’01) would have thrown their support to Como in a second round. What IRV does do is produce a clear majority winner, doing away with “spoilers” (Nader’s votes would have gone to Gore in ’00).

As noted in the FairVote report, vacancies occur regularly in the City Council. Including Como, six of the current council’s 51 members first came to office in a special election, in which turn-out is almost always a fraction of what it reaches in a regular race. Dick Dadey, Executive Director of the Citizens Union—which has lobbied for good governance reforms in the city since its founding over a century ago—voices some support for the measure: “We support instant run-off voting, particularly in special elections, where voter turn-out is so low, and successful candidates can win with a very small number of votes.” IRV ensures that even when turn-out is at a low ebb, the winner will be a consensus candidate with a stronger claim to represent the district as a whole.

When it comes down to a run-off—as it has in six citywide races since the current system was put into place in the early ’70s—absentee balloting poses similar problems. In 2001, absentee and military votes plunged by 36% in the fiercely contested run-off between Mark Green and Fernando Ferrer. “Instant run-off voting for absentee balloting is just common sense,” says Neal Rosenstein, Government Reform Coordinator for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “Often absentee voters never have the opportunity to vote absentee again in a run-off, and that’s clear disenfranchisement.”

Rob Richie’s argument for IRV is straightforward. Every time there’s a run-off election, “The city spends 20 million dollars it doesn’t need to,” says Richie. “That’s a pretty good case right there.” But Richie sees benefits that go beyond good governance and the simply logistical. IRV could change not only the competition between parties, but the competition within them. “Pushing people to have to build majority coalitions is a stronger dynamic for a party,” Richie says, arguing that under IRV the ritual bloodletting of the Democratic primaries might have been staunched. If a candidate hopes to be the second choice of voters who support a rival, primaries like those held in 1997 and 2001 “would have been run with more explicit reaching out beyond your base into someone else’s.”

Asked whether IRV would have altered his 2001 campaign for mayor, Mark Green, who has wracked up some painful experience on this question, declares: “I believe it would have changed it in no way.” Green argues that as the putative frontrunner, he had no motivation to attack his opponents, and ran an “above the fray” campaign. Nor does he attribute the controversial stances he took during the run-off—such as suggesting he was willing to consider an extension of Giuliani’s term—to the result of any pressure to differentiate himself from Ferrer.

Nonetheless, Green has thrown his support behind IRV in much the same terms as Rob Richie: “It’s small ‘d’ democratic, doable, saves money, and it better reflects the will of the public. So I can see IRV replacing run-off elections, because… you have the winner… without having to go through two weeks of what can be a more rancorous contest because it’s one-on-one.”

The more radical possibility raised by FairVote is the introduction of some form of proportional representation to the City Council. PR schemes vary, and FairVote’s report proposes several options. Like IRV, under “choice voting”—the form of PR championed by FairVote—voters rank candidates in order of preference. Elections are held in “multi-member districts,” in which each district elects several representatives. Candidates are elected by wracking up enough votes to pass a set threshold. Any remaining votes for that candidate become “surplus’ votes,” and are redistributed according to the preferences of the voters. (A more recent innovation sees the surplus redistributed in proportion to the second-choices of all voters for the candidate, eliminating any bias in which votes are counted first).

Douglas Amy, a specialist in alternative election systems who teaches political science at Mt. Holyoke, explains that “all [PR systems] have the same goal: they want to assure that people are represented in proportion to their political strength. The way you do that is you minimize the number of ‘wasted’ votes; that is, votes that go to candidates that don’t win.” The result is a democratic process that more accurately reflects the interests of the electorate.

“It’s a city where [PR] makes a great deal of sense,” Rob Richie says, “just because of its diversity, the fact that where you live isn’t what defines every New Yorker.” PR allows voters with shared interests—whether defined by ethnicity, race, gender, or politics—to consolidate votes that would otherwise be lost in the jigsaw of 51 single-member, winner-take-all districts into which the city is carved.

In some ways, however, New York’s sheer diversity overcomes the limitations of winner-take-all. Just the fact the city is divided into 51 districts has made the council far more representative than it once was. “Is it perfect? No,” observes Bruce Berg, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University who recently published a history of city politics. “Is it more representative than it’s ever been in its recent history? Absolutely.”

The days when the Council was an all-white affair may be over, but even if the black and Latino communities can count on seats at the table, others are still waiting. Women are chronically under-represented in city government; although they represent 52% of the city’s population, only a third of council members are women and no woman has ever been elected mayor. Despite the fact that the city is home to nearly one million Asian-Americans (a figure that includes residents of Indian descent as well as those below the voting age), only one has ever won election to the Council—John Liu, who was born in Taiwan. And he’s about to be subjected to term limits.

Glenn Magpantay is a staff attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) who has researched the potential benefits of PR for Asian-Americans. He points toward the experience of Asian Americans with the old city School Boards, which between 1970 and 1990 were elected using PR. At a time when no Asian-American had been elected to the council, much less the state legislature or Congress, fifteen were able to win seats on the school boards under PR. “Minority voters have been able to find a greater voice and representation under alternative voting systems like FairVote is putting out there,” notes Magpantay. Although the AALDEF does not lobby for reforms itself, he says that “if it happened in New York City, we would defend it if it were challenged. The question is: how do you make this happen?”

For an answer, we can look back into the city’s past. Between 1937 and 1945, New Yorkers voted under a system of proportional representation for five successive elections. PR was one of a battery of good governance reforms spearheaded by the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century. The Proportional Representation League was founded in 1893; its secretary, Dr. George Hallett, was also a prominent member of the Citizens Union (and Rob Richie’s great uncle; democracy reform runs in the family). By the mid ’20s the League was advancing on larger cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati. New York was a major victory, and eleven more cities quickly followed.

Under the version of PR adopted in New York in 1936, each borough became a district unto itself. A candidate needed 75,000 votes to win a seat (intriguingly, the number of seats depended on turnout). In 1935, the Tammany Dems had dominated the council, holding 62 of 67 seats. After voters approved PR—by more than 350,000 votes—the Tammany Dems were left with only 50 percent of the seats, with, among others, Republican and American Labor Party reps also winning places on the Council. Soon thereafter, African-Americans elected their first representative to the Council, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. In ’41, Peter Cacchione became the first Communist to win election to the Council; in ’43 his comrade Ben Davis (an African-American and a Harvard Law graduate) became the second.

The Tammany Dems waged a relentless campaign to repeal PR. In the end, the winning strategy was simple: redbaiting. With the end of the Second World War and the Republicans encouraged by Thomas Dewey’s capture of the Governor’s office, both Democrats and Republicans attacked PR as “a foreign political theory that has created confusion with the blessing of the Kremlin.” PR was finally defeated in 1947, and the Tammany Dems swept 24 out of 25 seats in the next Council elections. The tide had turned; no new cities adopted PR after its repeal in New York, and almost all of those that had went on to repeal it as well (with the exception of Cambridge, Mass, still using PR today). Today’s council is once again an almost exclusively Democratic stronghold. “Everyone knows the two-party system is a dud,” states Dan Levitan, a spokesman for the Working Families Party. “A thorough overhaul makes obvious sense, even if it is unlikely to happen. That said, New York already has the achievable election reform that makes sense for progressives: fusion.” Fusion allows one party to ‘cross-endorse’ a candidate put forward by another party, a strategy the WFP has used to build itself into a formidable force in New York City. According to Levitan, “Fusion lets voters avoid wasting their vote on a candidate who can’t win or helping the candidate you like the least, like Nader’s campaign did. It gives voters a way to vote their values and send a message about the kind of world they want to see.”

Gloria Mattera, Co-Chair of the Green Party of New York State, is skeptical about whether fusion really delivers: “Fusion is a strategy, but I don’t necessarily think it upholds particular party principles.” She argues that fusion “has a negative connotation—‘I’m angry at the Democrats because they got elected saying they’d end the war… and here they are voting for the same things over again.’ It makes voters feel better if they vote for the same person on a different party line, because the party espouses the ideals the voter has. It seduces the voters into thinking their vote counts more. Whereas it would truly count in an IRV or proportional representation system.”

Levitan cites the WFP’s victories on raising the minimum wage as well as pushing paid family leave and campaign finance reform as evidence of fusion’s power. “Fusion lets you be part of the coalition that wins the election, meaning you can really affect change in a real way,” he says. Mattera doesn’t buy it. “It contributes to reducing voter choice—you’ll see the same person running on two or three party lines. How does that give voters a choice?”

In the end, the party most likely to benefit from PR is the one that consistently comes in second and yet holds only three of the Council’s 51 seats: the Republicans. Estimating exactly how much traction Republicans might gain is difficult—first and foremost, it depends on the specific formula for PR adopted—but a crude suggestion can be found in the fact that while approximately 10 percent of Brooklyn voters are registered as Republicans, the party doesn’t hold a single seat in the borough. Whether progressives are willing to risk Democratic hegemony to open up the city’s democracy remains to be seen.

For the time being, FairVote is focusing on implementing IRV for absentee ballots, special elections, and citywide primaries. Even this could be moot if the city’s Board of Elections purchases new voting machines which are unable to process IRV (much less PR) ballots. While the Board has purchased ballot-marking machines which should be compatible with IRV and PR (although the machines do not include those options as part of their software), the Board has yet to make a final decision on ballot-scanning machines. The courts have dictated that decision be made by early November.

NYPIRG has lobbied for all voting machines to at least be IRV-compatible so that, in the words of Neal Rosenstein, “new voting technologies don’t become a barrier to implementing these types of reforms in the future.”

“The contract in New York City represents a huge amount of money for any vendor,” observes Rosenstein. “The size of the contract means that the city could and should be demanding for as much as they can get, including IRV-compatibility. Requiring that could have a huge influence across the country as well.” Effectively, the city could act as a market-maker, compelling the voting machine cartel to make alternative-voting systems a standard option in the software package. Rosenstein is quick to note that haggling over how the machines will count votes is hardly an ideal solution: “That’s a problem with the privatization of your election system. We support the development of an open-source, publicly owned system.”

Regardless, at this late date, legislation will have to precede the software (with whatever costs the voting machine cartel decides to charge), and those who would see the city once again adopt PR are dependent on the same Democrats that the new system might unseat. In the mid-’90s, cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder spent around $4 million on his crusade to get term limits on the ballot; few see such money materializing on behalf of IRV or PR. Toying with the idea of wiping term limits off the books, Mayor Bloomberg has declared that he would convene a charter review commission, which might provide a way of introducing IRV and PR independent of Democratic initiative. For its part, FairVote has decided to focus for the time being on promoting IRV. More radical democracy will have to wait.

About the Author

Nicholas Jahr is a freelance author living in Brooklyn, and a founding editor of the “Crumpled Press” (