Does a $13M runoff make sense when the public advocate’s budget is just $2.3M?

Runoff elections are not cheap.

The special elections required by law in New York when nobody in a citywide party primary race receives more than 40 percent of the vote can cost anywhere from $13 million to $20 million to carry out.  The only race in which there are candidates who meet that criteria is the election for public advocate.  Considering that few people know what the city public advocate is, and that very few voters are expected to turn out for the election,  the runoff race and its expenses are facing scrutiny right now.

First, it’s worth asking what the public advocate is.  PIX11 asked, in a random poll of New Yorkers on the streets near City Hall.   Nobody knew exactly.

The candidates themselves knew all too well, or, perhaps more accurately stated, they knew far too well.  Both candidates, former City Councilmember Letitia James and former State Senator Daniel Squadron, touted their records in government as partial definitions of public advocate.  However, their basic definitions, while different, shared a common theme.

“Basically, the role is to be checks and balances on the mayor,” said James.  Squadron said that the public advocate spends time “taking on the issues for New Yorkers who need better advocacy from their city government.”

Wikipedia’s definition of the position is that it’s an ombudsman or “watchdog” for New Yorkers.  Of course, Wikipedia content can be edited by anyone, so it’s possible that the definition was written by someone from the office of the current public advocate, Bill de Blasio.  He happens to be, of course, the current front runner for mayor.

In short, the public advocate is a citywide office that pursues issues in the public’s interest in city government and, as one New York resident on the City Hall Park sidewalk told PIX11 News, “it’s the person who gets to be mayor if the mayor can’t.”

She was absolutely correct.  If for some reason the mayor has to step down, the public advocate succeeds him.

Letitia James and Daniel Squadron want to fill that role that has never had a need to be filled.  Both Democrats received the highest numbers of votes in the party primary last week, so the law requires a runoff election between them, at the aforementioned cost of at least $13 million.  In contrast, the public advocate’s budget is a fraction of that amount — $2.3 million.

The two candidates stopped short of calling the runoff election a waste, but both emphasized a common action they favor.  “I wish we had instant runoff,” said James, referring to legislation she said she has advocated for in the past.  “We would not be in this position.”

Similarly, Squadron said, “I sponsored instant runoff elections in this state.”  Specifically, he co-sponsored Senate Bill S3250-2013 at the beginning of this election year, which describes itself as “establish[ing] an instant runoff vote in certain local elections.”

The instant runoff is an election in which the ballot allows voters to rank the candidates.  That way, if no candidate received the required minimum percentage of votes, the tallied order of preference of candidates by voters would ultimately determine the most popular candidate.  That candidate would win the contested seat without a separate, costly and poorly attended runoff election.

The system is not without flaws, and it is not the law of the land.  Instead, New York has a special runoff election slated for October 1st.  In a city with more than 3 million people eligible to vote, political analysts say the candidates will be lucky to have 100,000 voters citywide.

“That shows a disconnect between the electorate and even the Democratic Party,” said Bob Hennelly, a political consultant in Manhattan. “And it’s anybody’s [race] to win.”

And it may not be the only race, by the way.  A final tally has not been issued of the paper and absentee ballots in the Democratic primary for mayor.  If that final count shows that current front runner Bill de Blasio did not receive the required 40 percent of votes, there will be a runoff election, even though de Blasio’s closest challenger, Bill Thompson, has already conceded to him and endorsed de Blasio.

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