The City Council adopted the ordinance in a 6-2 vote to place a referendum on this November’s ballot to allow voters to decide whether to reinstate runoff elections for mayor and council. Council members Emily Jabbour and Jim Doyle voted no and Councilman Peter Cunningham was absent.
Residents spoke at the council meeting in favor of the ordinance, including Patricia Waiters. “This run off is very, very important. Please, tonight, vote yes, and put the power in the people’s hands to decide.”
The city did away with runoff elections in 2012. Before that, if no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote in an election, the top two vote-getters would participate in a runoff.
This past November, six candidates ran for mayor. Bhalla won with just over 32 percent of the vote.
In a press release, Bhalla cited reduced voter participation and illegal vote buying as reasons why he vetoed the ordinance.
“Presumably, the objective of this legislation is to ensure that any successful candidate for office obtain at least 50 percent of the vote,” said Bhalla. “While this is a worthwhile objective, it needs to be considered together with other important objectives, such as maximizing voter participation and minimizing the likelihood of election results being influenced by improper conduct. The evidence is clear that there is a dramatic reduction in voter turnout associated with December runoff elections, as we saw most recently during four Jersey City runoffs in 2017, which experienced voter turnout reductions ranging from 33.6 percent to 45.4 percent.”
“The open secret known by every single member of the City Council and alluded to in multiple local news reports is that there is massive vote-buying that occurs in our elections,” added Bhalla. “Reducing voter turnout through runoffs in December will amplify the power of those vote-buying operations, making our elections less democratic. Therefore, the approach taken by the City Council in achieving this objective is highly misguided and amounts to poor public policy that I cannot support. A far better approach, which I fully support, is to move to instant runoff (also known as ranked choice) voting which is commonplace around the country.”
With “instant runoffs,” instead of voting for a single candidate, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. If a candidate has more than half of the vote based on first choices, that candidate wins. If no candidate has more than half of those votes, then the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated. The voters who selected the defeated candidate as a first choice will then have their votes for their second choice added to the totals. This process continues until a candidate has more than half of the votes, or only two candidates remain.
“The implementation of instant runoffs would resolve the understandable concerns about electing candidates with a plurality rather than a majority of the vote, while mitigating or eliminating many of the anti-democratic and illegal practices fostered by traditional runoffs in December,” wrote Bhalla in his veto statement. “I will be reaching out to the Murphy Administration and the legislative delegation for the 33rd District, State Senator Brian P. Stack, Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro and Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, about enacting instant runoff legislation at the state level, so we may have this option in the future.”
During the last council meeting, a resolution was also pulled from the agenda due to a language dispute which urged the state to consider legalizing instant runoff elections.
The resolution’s sponsor, Councilwoman Emily Jabbour, said it would be back on a future agenda once it was rewritten with input from other councilmembers.
“The people of Hoboken approached us about this.” --- Council President Ruben Ramos.
Councilman Michael DeFusco, an unsuccessful mayoral candidate who sponsored the ordinance, stated “It is disappointing to see Mayor Bhalla not just deny Hoboken residents the opportunity to have their voices heard in a public referendum on our voting rights, but to also see him spread misinformation and half-truths while doing so. The ordinance he vetoed was passed overwhelmingly by the City Council and it would simply allow our community to collectively decide whether or not to re-institute runoff elections. This issue should be decided by the people, not by entrenched, establishment politicians like Mayor Bhalla who benefit from a flawed current system.”
“The mayor cites reduced voter turnout in a recent Jersey City runoff, but he fails to mention that the last time Hoboken held a runoff election for mayor in 2009 turnout actually increased from the initial election,” said DeFusco. “Meanwhile, he suggests that he supports an instant runoff system that, while certainly worth exploring, is currently not allowable by state law.
“All of this is meant to distract from the fact that Mayor Bhalla is concerned that re-instituting runoff elections would hurt his chances of re-election as he has not demonstrated the ability to secure majority support or to work collaboratively with his fellow elected officials. This is a deeply cynical ploy that puts politics over our city’s values of transparency and openness, and I will be working with my council colleagues to determine what steps can be taken to ensure that Hoboken residents’ voices are ultimately heard on this important issue.”
Council President Ruben Ramos said he was surprised by the veto.
“I was a little bit surprised, especially since this is the fourth time the council passed it overwhelmingly,” said Ramos who noted that under former Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who endorsed Bhalla as her successor, the council passed it on first and final reading before she vetoed the ordinance in December.
“The people of Hoboken approached us about this,” said Ramos. “I am not deciding this the 55,000 residents of Hoboken would decide the outcome.”
As for instant runoffs, Ramos said he believes he needs to look into it further but feels it should be explored if approved by state legislature.
Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher said she has fought and has long been concerned with “paid for” votes. She said that it remains a concern but that she still believes residents should have the option to vote as to whether or not runoffs are reinstated.
“My personal view hasn’t changed,” said Fisher. “I made my decision to approve the ordinance based on a number of things, one is that throughout the election, in which we had multiple candidates, we constantly heard from people who felt uneasy with a candidate who would win without a majority of votes and wanted a runoff.”
She added that she would be supportive of an override as well as learning more about instant runoffs.
Ramos said the council will seek to override the veto.
The council can overturn the veto with a 6-3 vote.
In his veto statement Bhalla said, “Council members have said we should ‘let the people decide.’ When Hoboken voters already decided to eliminate runoffs, it was during a high-turnout presidential election in 2012, and voters overwhelmingly chose to eliminate traditional runoffs. Nonetheless, if it is the will of the council to seek a re-vote in the hopes of a different result, it would be far more democratic to hold this referendum during the presidential election in 2020 when there will be maximum voter turnout and participation, not in 2018, an off-year election. “
He noted that if it were held in 2020 it would take place before the next mayoral election.
Council people Emily Jabbour, Jim Doyle, Michael Russo, Jen Giattino, Peter Cunningham, and Vanessa Falco did not return calls for comment.
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.