New York Should Think Outside the Box to Improve Primaries

Posted by Ethan Fitzgerald on July 22, 2016

A recent Gotham Gazette piece examined problems with primary elections in New York State and some proposed solutions. In April, there was significant controversy when purged voter roles, cumbersome registration deadlines, and use of closed primaries kept thousands of New Yorkers from participating in the presidential primary. The Gazette story also highlighted the fact that New York is holding two additional primary elections for down-ballot offices this year. Holding additional elections presents a significant extra cost to taxpayers and tends to suppress turnout as voters are unlikely to make it to the polls four times in one year.

As a solution to these problems, a group of state legislators have introduced bills that would consolidate the two non-presidential primaries. This would allow for some cost saving, but does not address the complaint that closed primaries keep too many voters from determining the choices they will have in November.

This issue would be addressed by the proposal backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and US Senator Chuck Schumer of a “Top Two” nonpartisan primary. Under Top Two, political parties do not nominate candidates at all. Instead, all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, run on the same primary ballot. The top two vote-getters then face off in the general election, again regardless of party affiliation.

That form of primary election would allow all voters to participate on equal footing - but there is no reason to only advance two candidates to the general election. Switching to a Top Four system with ranked choice voting (or even ranked choice voting without holding a primary at all) would be better. Advancing four candidates to the general election opens the political debate to more ideas and perspectives. By using ranked ballots, voters can express their full preference and have meaningful choice while still preserving majority rule.

Ranked choice voting can eliminate the need for a primary altogether, and because RCV elections are counted like an instant runoff, New York could also avoid costly, low-turnout runoff elections. Lawmakers that want more open and efficient elections in New York should go beyond trying to fix one issue at a time and instead give voters a system that is fair to everyone.

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