In addition to choosing a Public Advocate and a Queens District Attorney on Tuesday, we will vote on five ballot questions. The most important of these is Question #1, which would implement ranked choice voting in primaries and special elections for city offices. This would profoundly change the nature and results of our elections.
As I have written many times before, in New York City the Democratic Primary is really the election. Under the current system, in city-wide primaries for Mayor, Public Advocate, and Comptroller, there is often a multi-candidate primary. If none of the candidates receives 40% of the vote, there is a runoff between the top two candidates several days later, with the winner moving on to the General Election. This system produces a nominee with broad support within the party. But runoffs are expensive to administer. They inconvenience voters, who are called on to take time out to vote twice within a short time. This leads to lower turnouts in both the primary and the runoff.
In primaries for Borough President and the City Council, the person who comes in first in the primary is the winner and moves on to the general election. In a crowded, closely contested primary with ten candidates, it is possible for someone to win with 15% of the vote. This can easily lead to the election of people who are totally unacceptable to the vast majority of voters.
Special elections are held when the offices of Mayor, Public Advocate, Comptroller, Borough President, and City Councilmember are vacant. Earlier this year, we had a Special Election for Public Advocate to replace Tish James, who was elected State Attorney General. If Melinda Katz is, as expected, elected Queens District Attorney, there will be a Special Election for Borough President early next year. In Special Elections, the person who comes in first wins and holds office until the next General Election. In the recent Special Election for Public Advocate there were 17 candidates. In such a crowded election, it is also possible for a candidate who is opposed by most of the public to win with just 10% of the vote.
In ranked choice voting, we will have the opportunity to vote for up to five candidates and to rank them in order of preference. A candidate who receives 50% or more of the first-place votes would be the winner. If no one receives 50% of the vote, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes would be eliminated and his or her votes reallocated to their second choice. This would continue until someone receives 50% of the vote. This would ensure that the winner would be acceptable to the majority of voters and would benefit candidates who appeal to a cross section of the public rather than to a narrow ideological interest group.
To demonstrate how this might work, and review some of our Biblical history along the way, let’s imagine an election using the figures from the census in Parshas BaMidbar. The initial results would be: Yehudah 74,600, Dan 62,700, Shimon 59,300, Zevulun 57,400, Yisachar 54,400, Naftali 53,400, Reuven 46,500, Gad 45,650, Ephraim 45,500, Binyamin 35,400, and Menashe 32,200. Yehudah would have won a clear plurality but would have fallen far short of a majority of the 603,550 total votes. The 12th place finisher, Menashe, would be eliminated, and his votes reallocated to the second choice of his supporters. One would imagine that many of Menashe’s voters would have selected Ephraim, the other son of Yosef as their second choice, moving him past some of the others who had finished ahead of him in the first round. On the next round, Binyamin would finish 11th and be eliminated. Some of his supporters might also well have made Ephraim their second choice, enabling him to move up further. Others might have chosen Yehudah, just as the tribe of Binyamin did when the kingdom split after the death of Shlomo HaMelech. This would continue on future rounds. Supporters of Yisachar might well have marked the candidate who offered them financial support, Zevulun, as their second choice. Voters for Gad might have gone for his full brother, Asher, or for their future neighbor on the east bank of the Jordan River, Reuven. Candidates would continue to be eliminated, with their votes reallocated to their next choice until someone receives a majority. Yehudah, who received the most first choice votes might well win, but if he did not get enough second- and third-choice votes, he might well fall short.
To see how such a system might have changed the result in a real election, let’s look back on last year’s Democratic Primary in the 13th Congressional District. Rashida Tlaib, from the infamous “Squad,” won that primary with 31% of the vote, to 30% for the incumbent Representative, Brenda Jones, in a six-way race. Had ranked voting been in effect, supporters of the other candidates, who like Jones were African American, might well have marked Jones as their second choice. Jones would have won the primary and Tlaib would not be in Congress today.
Finally, let’s imagine a choice that we might be confronted with in the future using examples of historical figures. It would be a three-way race with one virulent anti-Semite, say Adolf Hitler. There would be a second candidate, deeply flawed but certainly preferable to Hitler, say Franklin D. Roosevelt. The third candidate would be someone very close to our ideal, say Menachem Begin. Polls might show a close race between Roosevelt and Hitler, with Begin a distant third. Some of us, fearing that votes for Begin would be wasted would vote for Roosevelt to stop Hitler. Others would say we should stand by our ideals and stick with Begin. In ranked voting, we would not have to make that decision. We could mark Begin as our first choice and Roosevelt as our second choice. We could vote both with our hearts for the person we really believe in as well as make sure that the candidate who represents an existential threat to our community is defeated.
Ranked voting would eliminate costly runoffs. It would avoid our having to choose between standing by our ideals or voting for the lesser of two evils. One thing that the extreme left and the extreme right have in common is their contempt for Jews. Ranked voting would prevent the election of extremists who appeal to a narrow segment of the public and favor the election of moderates who appeal to the broad spectrum of the public. That is good news for us.
Vote “Yes” on Ballot Question #1.
Manny Behar is the former Executive Director of the Queens Jewish Community Council and was a senior aide to several elected officials.