An ordinance for instant runoff and reinstating majority rule would provide a remedy
By Ron Hine | FBW | July 26, 2017
With 55,000 residents, as few as 2,400 to 3,000 votes could be all that are needed to elect Hoboken’s next mayor and three at-large council members, thus exposing a fatal flaw in the city’s election law. “The will of the people” as commonly understood in our democracy is expressed through a majority vote. With a crowded field of candidates, however, minority rule is likely to govern the upcoming nonpartisan local election this November and determine Hoboken’s political leadership for the next four years.
Seven mayoral hopefuls have announced and additional candidates are likely to throw their hats in the ring by the September 5 deadline. Five of the candidates have held elected office, have the resources to raise serious campaign funds and could run competitive races. In addition, there are multiple political divides, resulting in no clear front-runner.
In 2013, about 12,000 votes were cast in the mayoral race. With a comparable turnout, if 20% is sufficient to win, 2,400 votes are all that are needed. If 25%, just 3,000 votes would do the trick.
Up until four years ago, local elections in Hoboken were held in May. If no candidate received a majority, there would be a runoff election in June between the top two vote-getters as provided for in the state’s election statutes. In the November 2012 election, Hoboken voters approved moving the election from May to November and eliminating runoff elections, two public questions supported by Mayor Dawn Zimmer.
The argument against runoff elections was that they resulted in lower voter turn-out and added to the cost and effort of running an election campaign.
Other communities have implemented something called instant runoff voting or ranked-choice voting to solve this problem. Beginning in 2004, a number of municipalities began adopting this voting system. Included are Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and San Leandro in California; Telluride, Colorado; Portland, Maine; Takoma Park, Maryland; Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Hendersonville, North Carolina; and Memphis, Tennessee.
The way it works is a voter ranks candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of first preferences, the candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated one by one and their votes are transferred according to their second and third preferences until one candidate receives a majority.
The fact that Hoboken’s election is nonpartisan is a good thing, for it allows a more open voting process that is not dominated by one or two political parties. The outcome of local primary elections, for instance, are typically determined by the Hudson County Democratic Organization, dominated by a few key political players, rather than the voters, another case of democracy diminished.
Renee Steinhagen, the Executive Director of New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center, has been a leading advocate for election reform in New Jersey. She recommends a voter initiative in Hoboken to re-adopt majority voting, but this time, employing the mechanism of an instant runoff election. Such an election has been made much easier because of the state’s use of electronic voting machines. Public minded citizens should be motivated to take such an action after the November election, which probably will establish new political leadership that reflects the will of only a small minority of voters.
Hoboken voters have had much success utilizing New Jersey’s right to Initiative & Referendum for good causes. The Coalition for a Better Waterfront (the precursor to Fund for a Better Waterfront) defeated the City’s agreement with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey to develop the South Waterfront in referendums in 1990 and 1992.
In 2004, a Hoboken good government group, People for Open Government (POG), utilizing the Initiative & Referendum statute, placed a pay-to-play model ordinance entitled Public Contracting Reform on the ballot. Hoboken voters passed the the ordinance by an overwhelming margin. Subsequently, POG successfully pressed the City to pass a developer pay-to-play ordinance under threat of another ballot Initiative petition. For the past fourteen years, these two ordinances have effectively dried up campaign contributions from professional service firms seeking municipal contracts and real estate developers with projects in redevelopment areas.
If Hoboken voters choose to adopt instant runoff and reinstate majority rule, this could be done through an Initiative petition. In the alternative, the Hoboken City Council could choose to adopt such an ordinance.
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