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Watchdog Group: Pricey Public Advocate Election Proves Changes Are Needed

150,000 Voters Expected For $13 Million Runoff On Tuesday
A voter emerges from a voting booth after casting her ballot in Manhattan on Sept. 10, 2013. (credit: Getty Images)

A voter emerges from a voting booth after casting her ballot in Manhattan on Sept. 10, 2013. (credit: Getty Images)

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — An expected low turnout in the runoff election for New York City’s public advocate has a government watchdog group — and the candidates — seeking changes.

As WCBS 880’s Marla Diamond reported, reopening the polls Tuesday will cost taxpayers $13 million, and the Board of Elections estimates 150,000 voters will turn out in a city of more than eight million people.

“That’s an abysmally low number,” said Dick Dadey, director of Citizens Union, a government watchdog group.

“Let’s implement little-cost, easy-to-run, instant-runoff voting, where you have the voters rank the candidates in order of their preference at the time that they vote in the primary election,” Dadey suggested.

Both of the Democratic candidates in the race — city Councilwoman Letitia James and state Sen. Daniel Squadron — say they’d support instant runoffs. The system is already utilized in several American cities including San Francisco and Minneapolis.

Earlier this month, Councilman Brad Lander introduced a bill that would allow primary voters to rank their choice of candidates, eliminating the need for runoffs.

“It’s crazy to spend millions of dollars for an office that the whole budget’s only [$2.3] million,” Lander told WCBS 880’s Rich Lamb. “Luckily, there’s a great solution, which is instant-runoff voting.”

A lack of understanding about the post, which was created in 1993, will also likely depress turnout. The public advocate is the city’s elected watchdog and would take over if the sitting mayor was incapacitated, but it has a small budget and very little real power. Despite that, several occupants later became their party’s nominee for mayor, including current Democratic standard-bearer Bill de Blasio.

De Blasio has not offered an endorsement in the race, saying Monday he “admires” the candidates and believes “they both would do a great job.” De Blasio, who barely topped 40 percent in the mayoral primary, said he also believes that runoff reform is needed.

The winner of Tuesday’s election is all but certain to be elected the next public advocate since there will not be a Republican candidate on the Nov. 5 general election ballot. The two Democrats have similar liberal positions on most issues, from the need for school reform to the creation of more affordable housing.

James, 54, a three-term councilwoman from Brooklyn, has the support of most unions, including the Uniformed Firefighters Association, which endorsed her on City Hall’s steps Monday afternoon. James, who is black, has argued for the need to have a person of color and a woman in a citywide office, since the leading candidates for mayor and comptroller are white men.

Squadron, who is white, has utilized a larger campaign war chest and has the backing of the city’s major newspaper editorial boards and many high-profile politicians, including his former boss, Sen. Charles Schumer. Squadron, 33, and Schumer walked together through Brooklyn’s large “Atlantic Antic” festival Sunday, shaking hands with potential voters.

James was also there, flanked by a group of sign-carrying volunteers as she stepped around food vendors and balloon hawkers for some last-minute retail politicking.

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(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)