Hannah Lane

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This year, the landscape of New York City elections is changing. Ranked choice voting will debut right as Bushwick voters gear up for the primary elections on June 22nd, when residents will elect a city council member to represent District 37, which consists of parts of Bushwick, East New York, Cypress HIlls, Ocean Hill and Brownsville. The ballot measure will allow New Yorkers to rank their favorites from first to fifth choice: this deviates from the conventional model that limits voting to a single candidate from each party, opening the door for spread out support to less established candidates. Rank the Vote NYC, a coalition of non-profit labor unions that supports ranked choice voting describes the process as such: “If no one wins with a majority (more than 50 percent), the candidate that came in last is defeated and voters’ second choice votes get counted.”

Supporters believe that the system will return power to voters and create a more equitable election. Some believe this new model may have the potential to change the future of democratic elections in America as we know them. 

Candidates in Brooklyn’s 37th city council district know the pitfalls of the traditional ballot. Last year, incumbent Darma Diaz was elected to City Council after a numerous Board of Elections challenges had left her unopposed and forced contestants for the hotly contested seat to wait another year. The coming June primary will be vital in assuring fairness, representation, and transparency. Three of the candidates in this year: Sandy Nurse, Rick Echevarria, and Misba Abdin were booted from the June 2020 ballot when a Cuomo executive order decreasing the number of signatures needed to run was overturned by the Board.   

In a recent open letter, Nurse joined a group of signatories asking that the current council invest in a comprehensive voter education campaign to inform New Yorkers on how the rollout of ranked choice voting works, and the importance of this kind of election reform. “Underrepresentation is a direct result of our winner take all system,” the letter reads. “Not only will RCV help ensure the New York City Council reflects the diversity of our city, but is a winning campaign strategy for us.” 

Nurse, in a conversation with Bushwick Daily, added: “RCV gives us an opportunity to transform the way politics works in our city. It opens the field for more districts to elect first-time progressive candidates and gives women of color and LGBTQ folks a better chance at winning. It’s hard to deny the profound and positive impacts RCV has on elections.”

In a campaign ad, rival candidate Nurse urges voters to select her first on a ranked choice ballot.  

Practically speaking, ranked choice voting could threaten Diaz’s incumbent advantage. In a recent study done by Carnegie-Melon University, it was determined that 80% of incumbent senators have been reelected since 1964. But with a ranked system, sitting politicians are no longer a shoe-in for reelection. 

Kevin Johnson, who serves as the Executive Director of the Election Reformers Network — an integral player in the rollout of ranked choice voting in that state of Maine — told Bushwick Daily: “Sometimes RCV will result in a surprising victor: they may end up being everyone’s second choice.”

Johnson was referencing the 2009 Burlington, VT mayoral race in which incumbent Bob Kiss won without securing 50% of the overall vote. This can also be seen in Maine’s 2020 senatorial race when Susan Collins, a Republican, won reelection in a major upset. “There will inevitably be some aberrations,” Johnson said. 

Johnson is also on the advisory board of FairVote.org, which puts out a wealth of information on how ranked choice voting works in other countries. For instance, FairVote examined how local and national politics shifted in Ireland due to the high-stakes voting platform that RCV provides. After the 2008 recession, a fiscal crisis was triggered in Ireland and voters were feeling want for change. In their 2011 election, they unseated 45 incumbent members of parliament. RCV makes this process more achievable as every office is equally contested. Ranking your “favorites” lends credence to third-party candidates and breaks down the “duopoly.” 

Kevin Johnson says voters for District 37 should “come in knowing a lot about at least two candidates.” He conceded it was probably unlikely that citizens would be able to know everything about every candidate, but having a few strong choices would make the process more engaging. “You should have more than one choice.”

In regards to the fears that ranked choice voting is difficult for voters, he noted “it’s not as hard as people might fear. It will look fairly familiar.” 

With 500 candidates running for city council this year, ranked choice ballot serves as a turning point for how the city votes. 

“We need to level the playing field for candidates who have traditionally been excluded from office for every level of government,” said Nurse. 

With a wide-open election, a myriad of affiliations, and a diverse pool of candidates, the battle for office may no longer be for front runners — it might be for runner-ups. 

Top photo credit: Google Maps.

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