Come June in Bushwick, we’re going to be voting in a whole new way. The June 22nd primaries will be the first time voters across New York City will have the chance to test out the new balloting system known as ranked-choice voting. That means that when you pick your nominee for mayor, borough president, public advocate, city comptroller or city council member, you will now have the option to vote for your top five, rather than sticking to just one.
This marks a huge change to the way we pick our local representatives in New York. Before ranked-choice voting, which was adopted following a 2019 referendum, candidates could win powerful seats without getting a majority. All they had to do was get one more vote than the next candidate, even if that meant winning with a small percentage of all votes cast.
Ranked-choice voting requires that a candidate win with at least 50% of votes cast, plus one vote more. This is achieved through an “instant runoff” process based on voters’ top five choices of nominees. The new system was first rolled out in February in two special elections in Queens, in city council Districts 24 and 31. It will be used again this month in two city council special elections in the Bronx. The June primaries will be the first citywide election that will use ranked-choice voting.
In Bushwick, the chance to rank candidates will come into play most prominently in two city council races, as well as the larger races for mayor, public advocate, city comptroller and Brooklyn borough president. In District 34, Councilman Antonio Reynoso is reaching the end of his term limit and the race to replace him has already drawn five primary rivals. (Reynoso is currently competing in the stiff eight-person Brooklyn borough president primary race.) In nearby District 37, incumbent Darma Diaz, who saw her competitors knocked off the ballot last year through aggressive petition challenges, is facing six opponents in the June primary.
By an amendment to the city charter, ranked-choice voting is now mandated for primary and special elections for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough president and city council.
You can still go ahead and vote the old way — for a single candidate only — or you can choose up to five candidates in descending order in every race that applies. If the initial count reveals that one candidate got over 50% of the votes, that candidate wins. But if no candidate reaches this threshold after the first tally, the votes are retabulated using what’s called an “instant runoff.” The candidate who got the least number of first-choice votes will be eliminated. Voters who had ranked that candidate as their top pick will now have their second-choice pick added to the recount. If a majority winner emerges from this second count, that person wins. If there is still no majority winner, another instant runoff is triggered. The new bottom-tier candidate is eliminated and third-choice candidates are distributed into the mix. This process repeats until one candidate has a clear majority — defined in this case as 50% plus one vote.
Voting rights activists and good government groups are largely behind the push for ranked-choice voting in New York. One reason, they say, is that it saves taxpayer money and potentially boosts New York’s famously low voter turnout. The instant retabulation process saves voters having to trudge back to the polls for in-person runoffs, which cost the city and candidates a lot of money, and often drew only a small fraction of the voters who showed up the first time. By allowing voters to choose their second, third, fourth and even fifth picks at the outset, advocates say that ranked-choice voting can save the city millions of dollars and guard against letting a low-turnout runoff ultimately decide who wins a race.
FairVote, a nonpartisan advocacy group, cites studies conducted in 2016 and 2020 that showed that ranked-choice voting has the capacity to increase overall voter turnout, in some cases by as much as 10%. By allowing voters to pick their backup choices, ranked-choice voting can bolster constituent confidence that their vote will actually make a difference, a major factor in engaging nonvoters. An uptick in turnout would be a much-needed boon to New York City’s election fairness, as low participation has plagued the city and the state for decades. In races that often see double-digit numbers of competitors — the mayor’s race currently has over 20 hopefuls running and the comptroller’s race has nearly 15 — having more choices would give each voter more of a voice.
Even when in-person runoff elections were previously avoidable, citywide candidates often clinched nominations by the skin of their teeth. Bill de Blasio won the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary with 40.81% of the vote, just squeaking past the 40% minimum to avoid triggering an in-person runoff. Jumaane Williams won a special election for public advocate in February 2019 by winning just 33% of the votes cast, in an election where only 8% of eligible voters turned out. Before ranked-choice voting, special elections didn’t require runoffs, so even though Williams got the most votes in that 17-candidate race, only a tiny fraction of New Yorkers voted for him. This widely practiced system is sometimes referred to as “single-winner plurality,” “first past the post” or “winner-take-all” elections. A candidate only has to get one more vote than the next candidate to win. Ranked-choice voting seeks to change all that by requiring a victory of 50% plus one vote for any primary or special election winner.
Another argument for ranked-choice voting is that it hopes to engender greater equity among candidates. The old plurality system often had the effect of discouraging women and people of color from running in certain races, with party leaders warning potential candidates that they might split the vote against another woman or person of color who already had their backing. The way this argument goes, ranked-choice voting could empower more candidates to think they have a shot, not just the party insiders.
A study conducted by advocacy group Represent Women found that, between 2010 and 2019, 34% of local candidates in ranked-choice elections across the U.S. were women. Other big cities that currently practice ranked-choice voting include San Francisco and Minneapolis. Of those in the study, 35% won their races. Women of color made up 38% of these winners. And 48% of all seats up for election during this time period were won by women.
“People who would normally be told to wait their turn, to sit out a race, that they may split the vote — that’s no longer a concern,” Sean Dugar, a director at Rank the Vote NYC, told Bushwick Daily. “And the sad reality is that for people of color, for women, for younger candidates, that they tend to be able to raise less dollars. There are less donors willing to step forward. Their networks may have a lower wealth median than some other folks. So not having to raise the funds to run in a runoff, being able to put everything on the line in a single election, makes a great impact as well.”
Advocates for ranked-choice voting claim that the practice encourages candidates to play nice(r) with each other. Instead of running attack ads that tear down other candidates during their campaigns, candidates running in ranked-choice elections in other cities have shown a greater tendency to form coalitions with their competitors. Candidates who avoid going on the attack may also avoid alienating voters who back their competitor and may become someone’s number-two choice that way. And now being someone’s second choice could lead to a win.
We have yet to see this theory play out in New York City, however. “What we saw and have been seeing is there’s not much of that happening right now in the elections. I think maybe it’s a little too early, but…we’ve seen that in other places,” Rachel Bloom, policy director at New York-based good governance group Citizens Union, told Bushwick Daily. “There’s some people that are really encouraging people just to vote once, not to rank, just to vote for them.”
It’s possible that New Yorkers are not well adapted to put away their knives when competing for anything. But, per Bloom, it is still early days in New York for ranked-choice voting.
For now, New York City is limiting ranked-choice voting to our primaries and special elections. The main reason for this is New York State’s use of fusion voting, which lets one candidate run on multiple party lines in a general election.
In 2018, Andrew Cuomo appeared on the gubernatorial ballot four times, as a Democrat, and as a candidate for the Working Families Party, Independence Party and Women’s Equality Party. He’s one of many to have appeared on New York’s ballots this way. Some candidates can be found on both the Democratic and Republican party lines, as was the case in November 2020, when Carolyn Wade ran for Brooklyn Supreme Court judge as a Democrat, a Republican and a Conservative. (This is not uncommon for New York judges, and the way we elect our state judiciary is a whole other can of issues.)
New York is the only state in the union to practice fusion voting. The commissioners in charge of implementing ranked-choice voting in the city were skeptical that they could successfully merge ranked-choice voting with the fusion system.
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a voting rights advocacy group that fought to get ranked-choice voting into the 2019 referendum, said on the podcast “FAQ NYC” last year, that the city’s charter revision commission had considered making ranked-choice voting available in all elections. But, Lerner said, the commission worried that the fusion system, as used in general elections, would only create confusion when paired with ranked-choice voting. “It would be challenging to convince voters not to vote for the same candidate on different lines, using up their choices,” she said at the time. “So the decision was made — let’s start with special and primary elections, where candidates only appear once on the ballot. Let’s familiarize voters with it … and then if it’s as popular as we believe it will be, then the city can consider using it for the general election.”
In December, a coalition of six city council members filed a lawsuit in state court seeking to postpone ranked-choice voting until next year. They alleged that there wasn’t enough time to educate voters about the new system of voting before the start of the first ranked-choice election in the city — the special election in Queens on Feb. 2nd. The council members pointed to the stresses of COVID-19 as a reason candidates would not be able to properly engage with constituents about ranked-choice voting, and they argued that rolling out ranked-choice voting too quickly would disadvantage New Yorkers of color and those who don’t speak English as a first language. A judge denied the group’s request and an appeal is ongoing. That special election saw candidate James Gennaro grab over 60% of the vote for that city council seat on election night, making an instant runoff unnecessary.
On the night of the special election for city council District 31, on Feb. 23rd, Selvena Brooks-Powers was in the lead with 38% of votes counted. The instant runoff in that southeast Queens race won’t begin until March 15th when the election board has received all eligible absentee and military ballots.
In spite of her lead, Brooks-Powers criticized the rollout of ranked-choice voting, claiming voters were not sufficiently informed. “While there was substantial confusion about ranked-choice voting,” she told reporters last week, “these early results are promising and I look forward to all of the votes being counted.”
When asked if Citizens Union had been getting feedback that voters in Queens were unclear about how ranked choice works, Bloom told Bushwick Daily: “Just because it’s confusing doesn’t mean it’s bad or wrong or not going to work. It just means people need to use it a couple of times until they feel fully comfortable with it.” On the voter education campaign, she said, “There is a very robust public education campaign around RCV, and it is coming from city agencies. It’s coming from the [Campaign Finance Board], it’s coming from the [Board of Elections] … but it’s also coming from community groups and organizations.”
Dugar said Rank the Vote NYC has been getting mostly positive feedback from voters in New York’s early ranked-choice elections. “We’ve been doing exit polling in all of the special elections and although we haven’t released the results yet … what we see is actually voters find the process to be quite simple and easy to understand. People rank every day. Especially in this time of the pandemic, when we’re going to grocery stores where supplies are limited. They may not have what we want so we have to come up with a backup choice. And that’s what ranked-choice voting is.”
A poll released last month told a somewhat different story. Early research conducted by Fontas Advisors and Core Decision Analytics found that voters in New York City are “overwhelmingly unaware of the new ranked-choice voting process.” Of the 842 voters polled, 88% said they had not heard “a lot” about ranked-choice voting, while 34% claimed they had heard “nothing at all” about it.
But if there was ever a year to road test a ranking system in this city, it’s now. Hundreds of people are running. The hope is that letting New Yorkers know about the equity embedded in ranked-choice voting, and the added voice it will afford them, will get more people registered and showing up to make their voices heard.
The deadline for voter registration for the Democratic primary is May 28th.
Top photo credit: Rank The Vote NYC
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