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Ranked-Choice Voting Provides Alternative to Runoff Elections

Christina Capella :: New Brunswick Today

PERTH AMBOY, NJ— Here in the Bay City, residents voted overwhelmingly to change their form of government in 2019, giving themselves more of a voice in their local elections by requiring a second “runoff” election when no candidate receives a clear a majority of votes.

Because the city has non-partisan elections for local offices, and thus does not narrow down the field of candidates with a primary election, Perth Amboy often has more than two candidates in each contest.

Desiring a way to ensure the community’s leaders earned majority support, the City Council placed the government change on the ballot, and voters approved it with 67% support.

The move was an apparent response to Mayor Wilda Diaz, first elected as a reformer in 2008, winning her second and third terms with less than a majority of the total votes cast.

2012 Perth Amboy Mayor Election Results

Diaz won re-election in 2012 with 39% of the votes in a six-candidate contest, and then secured a third term with 48% of the vote where the opposition vote was split among three challengers.

Her critics still feared she would win re-election to a fourth term if multiple challengers split the vote again.

The change to the city’s charter, which took effect in 2020, proved prescient. In the first round this year, Diaz was the first-place finisher with just 33% of the vote, forcing a runoff between her and Councilman Helmin Caba.

Under the old system, Caba would have finished a close second with 30% of the vote, and Diaz would be sworn into a fourth term.

But when given another choice, with only Diaz and Caba on the ballot, 52.5% of voters chose Caba and 45.6% chose Diaz.

But there are downsides to the new system. The city incurred the $50,928 cost to run the additional election, and not everyone who participated in the first election came out for the second contest.

The runoff was also held on a very tight timeline that pushed the limits of the Board of Elections, which struggled to certify the results of the first race in time to prepare ballots for the runoff.

As we reported , officials admitted that seven suspect votes were counted and could not be removed from the totals after allegations of ballot thefts in the first race, and then the Board of Elections certified the results of that race before counting eleven ballots that were misplaced.

Governor Phil Murphy delayed the Perth Amboy runoff election by seven days.

Had the November 3 municipal races gone to a recount, that could have stymied the runoff, which had already been delayed a week by Governor Phil Murphy to address timing concerns.

And had the runoff been close enough to be disputed, it could have created uncertainty about who would be the Mayor as of January 1, when Diaz’ third term was scheduled to expire.

The contest was not so close as to cause a protracted dispute, with Diaz calling Caba to concede defeat on December 18, three days after the runoff.

Still, more ballots were left to count and the final totals were not certified until December 29, one day earlier than required by the Governor’s Executive Order.

Two separate elections means two separate occasions for voters to participate, which can create an additional side effect: Not everyone who took part in the first election participated in the runoff. While 14,909 votes were cast in the first race, only 9,403 participated in the runoffs, a 37% dropoff.

If “ranked-choice voting,” also known as instant runoff voting, were an option, perhaps Perth Amboy could have the best of both worlds.

What is Ranked-Choice Voting?

Example of what RCV would have looked like in the 2016 general election (Amherst College)

Ranked-choice voting (RCV) is being promoted in New Jersey and across the United States as a way to solve one of the major issues voters worry about: the “spoiler effect” that can result in voters opting for “the lesser of two evils” instead of the candidate who they feel best represents them.

In this system, voters rank their favorite candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins a majority of votes, then the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is removed from the ballot. The votes of the people who voted for the losing candidate are then re-assigned to their second choice candidates. The process repeats itself until a candidate with a majority of votes emerges.

It’s a common problem when more than two candidates are competing, and it has made it very difficult for independent and third party voices to gain traction, further re-enforcing the two-party system for better or worse.

Many other places in the United States and around the world have decided to use RCV in some or all of their elections, including Australia, and Ireland, as well as the American states of Alaska and Maine.

Several American cities including San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, and Santa Fe have also adopted the system. New York City recently decided to implement RCV for its own elections.

Five states (Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, Wyoming, and Nevada) used RCV for the 2020 Democratic Primaries. In these cases, vote choices were reallocated until all remaining candidates had at least 15% – the threshold for a candidate to receive delegates for the convention.

(source: FairVote.org)

A study by FairVote examining RCV elections in California found that candidates of color ran for office at a rate 8.4% higher than before.

According to an interview with Cynthia Richie of RepresentWomen, women are twice as likely to be elected to office in cities where RCV is in effect.

Proponents argue that RCV will increase participation because it improves chances for outside and third-party candidates.

Opponents believe that RCV is more confusing and that some voters will choose not to make the effort or make mistakes on their ballots.

Both sides believe their idea costs less. RCV supporters suggest that the cost of implementing the new system would be far less than the amount it currently costs to host runoff elections, while opponents believe that voter education and updating voting systems would be too expensive.

On the other side, opponents believe that voter education and updating voting systems would be too expensive.

By giving third-party and outsider candidates a fair chance, supporters say, we can finally start to shake up the two-party system that is responsible for so much gridlock and nasty campaigning.

Proponents of RCV argue that candidates from all different backgrounds will have their voices heard under RCV, taking power away from large corporate donors and entrenched establishment candidates.

Some NJ Cities Used RCV Long Ago

New Brunswick was one of several cities to used ranked-choice voting from 1915-1931.

At the end of the 19th century, women earned the right to vote and other progressive voting reforms such as RCV (or “preferential voting” as it was known then), ballot initiatives, open primaries, and direct election of U.S. Senators were introduced.

New Jersey was one of the first states to enable some towns to use preferential voting, after Governor James Fielder signed the Hennessy Preferential Voting Act in April 1914.

The law only applied to towns with commission governments authorized under the Walsh Act, which went into effect in 1911. The Walsh Act allowed municipalities to replace their local governments consisting of mayors and city councilors with a system of three to five nonpartisan commissioners who each run their own departments.

There are about 32 municipalities that still use this form of government today, most of which are concentrated in North Jersey and shore communities. The preferential voting component was done away with by a unanimous act of the State legislature in the early 1930’s.

Archives from The Central Jersey Home News provide a written account of the fight to switch to the non-partisan form of government.

Trenton and Jersey City were early adopters of the new form, prior to the addition of preferential voting, whereas efforts to pass the change from an “aldermanic” form of government to the Walsh Act form failed in New Brunswick in 1911 and 1913, before succeeding on a third try in 1915.

In the first election, fifty candidates ran for five seats and voters were permitted to rank their top four sets of five candidates.

The system was ultimately used for five elections in New Brunswick, once every four years until 1931, when the city saw a record-high turnout of 11,857 voters in the May election.

Meanwhile, Perth Amboy voters switched to the Walsh Act form of government in 1926, only briefly getting to use preferential voting before it was abolished.

Other Middlesex County communities that used the preferential voting system included Spotswood and Raritan Township, which was later renamed Edison.

It was ultimately a state legislator from Camden, another city where the system had also been in place, who made it his mission to repeal the preferential voting component.

A New Push For RCV in New Jersey

Herb Tarbous is one of the co-founders of Voter Choice NJ, a new organization pushing to bring back ranked-choice voting to New Jersey.

Almost ninety years later, the nation’s polarized politics have led voters nationwide to organize for ranked choice voting.

Herb Tarbous, a co-founder of Voter Choice NJ , describes in more detail their argument for RCV and their efforts organizing for voter reform in the Garden State.

“This is a non-partisan issue. The group is non-partisan and non-profit,” Tarbous told New Brunswick Today.

The organizing efforts are underway, and Tarbous is feeling confident: “We’re forming a coalition statewide to put ranked-choice voting on the ballot… We have over 300 supporters and 30-35 active volunteers and we’ve got some really talented people. We’re building momentum – we’re confident we can get some of these electoral reforms done.”

But the group faces an uphill battle here in the Garden State.

While ranked-choice voting has been successfully implemented in Alaska and Maine, a ballot question campaign in Massachusetts was unsuccessful.

Despite having raised a whopping $10 million dollars for the cause, the Massachusetts measure failed by 10 percentage points on November 3.

In an interview with Boston’s local NPR , Professor Peter Ubertaccio, dean of the Thomas and Donna May School of Arts & Sciences at Stonehill College explains why: “Ballot questions in presidential election years suffer from a lack of political oxygen… Everyone’s thinking about the big races.”

In the interview, he also suggested that ballot measure campaigns rely heavily on face-to-face engagement, such as door-to-door canvassing or community forums. “Community forums are very difficult to do in a pandemic.”

Eventually, the campaign was forced to rely on television ads, “which is not always the best place to get at some of the underlying issues for complicated matters of public policy or electoral policy.”

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker was also vocal in his opposition to the initiative: “This thing is just too complicated to add on top of that, the counting process alone could get unbelievably difficult.”

Here in New Jersey, the group faces another obstacle, according to Tarbous: “We can’t put it on the ballot directly as voters. We have to go through the state legislature. This does not require a Constitution change, but the Legislature has to pass laws to enable it.”

When asked about notable events or trends in other cities, states, or nationwide, Tarbous pointed to the national organization Rank The Vote .

“They’re working with 28 states including us, having nationwide conference calls to see what’s working and what’s not working.”

“Most people are having the same experience we are: For the most part this sells itself,” said Tarbous. “People who know what it is support us. There is more and more awareness of it… I’m encouraged by what I see nationwide and in the state and locally.”

Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker has championed legislation that would implement ranked-choice voting in New Jersey’s federal election.

In March 2019, Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker first introduced a bill that would establish ranked-choice voting for all state and federal elections.

After they expired at the end of the legislative session, the bills were re-introduced in the Senate (S1802) and Assembly (A1200).

Thus far, it is a strictly partisan bill, with only Democrats listed as official sponsors: Senators Linda Greenstein, Vin Gopal, and Shirley Turner, as well as Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro, and Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti, and Zwicker.

“There have been plenty of headlines around this idea of giving more power to the people in a crowded field to expand beyond just a single winner and letting their voice be heard,” Zwicker said in a phone interview with Politico .

“They know there’s a candidate they really like and they want to vote for, but they’re concerned that they’ll be throwing away their vote because this person does not come from one of the main parties.”

“I’m a certainly a numbers guy, a data person, and what we’re seeing in New Jersey and around the country is a disillusionment by people who feel that their voice and their vote just doesn’t matter, whether that’s from special interests and money or whether it is our whole election process,” Zwicker said to the New Jersey Globe .

A separate pair of bills, A4744 and S2992, would authorize municipalities that hold non-partisan elections to implement ranked-choice voting. Its sponsors so far include Zwicker, Chapparo, and Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez.

If history here is any guide, the change is more likely to take root at the local level in municipalities that don’t already hold separate primary and general elections.

In order to switch over to ranked-choice voting in our gubernatorial election, voters would need to approve an amendment to the state constitution, a difficult process that can only be accomplished through a statewide referendum placed on the ballot by the Legislature.

Politico’s Matt Friedman noted: “Such a system would likely face more than practical hurdles in New Jersey, where political power brokers are often able to effectively decide who gets elected in districts dominated by one of the major parties by endorsing candidates to receive the party ‘line’ that bestows favorable primary ballot placement — and then seeing their choices all but rubber-stamped by county committee members.”

“Ranked-choice voting wouldn’t be an alien concept to New Jersey voters. Some municipalities, including Newark, have run-off elections when one candidate for mayor or City Council doesn’t get a majority,” Friedman continued, noting the other prominent name for ranked-choice is “instant runoff” voting.

But any move that challenges the power structure won’t be easy, and this is a move that could threaten the powerful, Freidman concluded.

“Creating more choices for voters — especially those less beholden to party machinery — could threaten to diminish those bosses’ power.”

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