Updated at 5:30 p.m.
By Eduardo Cuevas
For the first time in decades, voters in eastern Queens in a special City Council election Tuesday got a chance to select up to five candidates for City Council and rank them by preference.
The ballots to accommodate the ranking looked different too —and they’re likely here to stay under the city’s new voting system.
In November 2019, nearly three-quarters of voters, over a half-million New Yorkers, approved an amendment to the City Charter to rank choices for certain municipal elections starting in 2021. Ranked-choice voting applies to special elections and primaries for mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough president and City Council. But it will not be used for general elections.
Other cities like San Francisco and Minneapolis use the ranked-choice voting system. And New York City even used it from 1937 to 1945 for City Council elections and for school board elections for nearly three decades beginning in 1970, according to a 2008 overview by FairVote, which supports the new voting system.
In New York City’s 24th Council District — an area of eastern Queens that is economically, ethnically and linguistically diverse, early voting to fill the seat of former City Council member Rory Lancman has been underway for several weeks. The district also includes the Jamaica Estates neighborhood where former President Donald Trump was raised. With eight candidates in the Queens race, residents must narrow the field to at most five choices.
Ranked-choice voting will be a fixture in the city moving forward, especially for the June 22 primary races, the first time the system will be used citywide.
The new system may sound confusing, but experts say voters need not be afraid of the process. Here’s what you need to know.
How does ranked-choice voting work?
The ballot will look different, of course. So be prepared. Next to each candidate’s name, there will be five ovals to rank in order of preference, with the first column for a first choice and the fifth for the last choice. Voters must fill in the bubble completely with the ranked choice made for up to five candidates.
Think of it like choosing items in everyday routines, like ordering a slice of pizza, according to John Chamberlin, a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy who specializes in voting systems. All it takes is a little planning before entering the voting booth, Chamberlin said.
“It’s not that hard, folks,” he told NY City Lens. “And sometimes it’s easier than figuring out what pizza you’re going to get.”
To win, candidates must garner more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes. If no one gets most of the first round of votes, then counting continues, winnowing candidates from the bottom down by the number of votes gathered in each preference. Those voters whose first choice is eliminated because of the fewest votes then have their next preference tallied. Ultimately, votes keep getting added and tallied until one candidate gets the most votes.
“The nature of the game of ranked-choice voting is the winning number is majority,” said Pedro Hernandez, a senior policy coordinator at FairVote, which supports ranked-choice voting. “You may not hit it in the first choice, and that’s why you need to think about second-choice votes. You’ve got to make sure that you are having an approach, a language and a message that is about communities and talking to the communities’ issues to get that second-choice vote.”
However, officials advise not to rank one candidate five times, as there is no strategic benefit to doing so under a ranked-choice system.
The new voting system, says Rank the Vote NYC, an advocacy group, does not make counting the ballots any slower or faster than they were counted before since everything is tabulated by computer.
Take a look at this Ranked Choice Voting sample ballot 👀
— NYC Votes (@NYCVotes) January 19, 2021
How is the city getting the word about the new system out to voters?
The Board of Elections has its ranked-choice voting webpage, which includes FAQs, a video, and transcripts in five languages. The Campaign Finance Board also has a dedicated webpage.
In an email, William Fowler, a spokesman for the Campaign Finance Board, said the agency has held over 40 training sessions, attended by more than 1,400 people, to learn about ranked-choice voting. Ahead of special elections, postcards were also sent to voters in Queens and the Bronx, which have special elections in February and March, respectively, in addition to advertising and social media content for community-based organizations to post. The Campaign Finance Board also plans to release interactive print and online material for the June primary, Fowler said.
However, elected officials argue the effort hasn’t been enough. On Thursday, City Council voted nearly unanimously to issue more detailed steps on voter education efforts. The bill expands a citywide media campaign, including distributing postcards to all voting households explaining the new system, increased collaboration with community-based organizations and conducting targeted outreach campaigns in districts with special elections prior to the June primary.
In a statement, Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, the Brownsville Democrat who authored the bill, said little has been done by city elections officials to engage New Yorkers on ranked-choice voting.
“Left to their own devices, the Campaign Finance Board and Board of Elections would only satisfy the bare minimum of our city’s charter requirements of public education,” she said. “That would be a waste of time and resources so I’m creating a space for us to ensure removal of barriers that keep people from voting and the opportunity to hold [the Campaign Finance Board] accountable if they don’t.”
Candidates up and down the ballot have expressed similar discontent about education efforts. On Jan. 25, Sandy Nurse, who is running for City Council in Bushwick, organized a campaign with nearly two dozen other candidates to educate people about ranked choice voting during a week dedicated to voter education. On the Upper West Side, two opposing City Council candidates even held a virtual drag show to explain the new system.
“We have a challenge,” Nurse told NY City Lens, while canvassing Saturday. “New Yorkers voted for this. It’s been a long time. There’s been no voter education, so it’s going to be on us to explain to voters what exactly this is about.”
In the 24th Council District, Jagpreet Singh, lead organizer at Chhaya Community Development Corporation, a New York City nonprofit serving South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities, has worked with other organizations to inform voters about the new process by holding multilingual forums and, importantly, showing people sample ballots.
Like Chamberlin’s comparison to pizza, Singh said ranked-choice voting is like any preference people make daily.
“It’s nothing new, per se,” he said. “It’s just new to do on paper for the specific purposes of elections.”
How does ranked-choice voting affect campaigns?
It may make for kinder and gentler political races, say some observers and advocates. They note that the system generally makes campaigns less negative because it often defeats the purpose of attacking candidates whose voters may be willing to support them on the second round of voting.
“Politics should be much more about elevating ideas rather than attacking other candidates,” FairVote’s Hernandez said.
Another aspect of ranked choice voting is it gives newer, outsider candidates more of a chance to win, which could be advantageous to communities of color traditionally underrepresented in local offices, according to Hernandez.
Candidates are also more likely to form coalitions because it’s easier having united groups than fractured voting blocs, Hernandez said. This is already starting to be seen with last week’s dual endorsement by State Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat, of Comptroller Scott Stringer and Dianne Morales in the mayor’s race, as NY City Lens reported.
With six South Asian candidates in Tuesday’s special election, New Yorkers could elect the first-ever South Asian city official. Previously, Singh said, communities have been fractured, but ranked choice allows voters to list off their preferred candidates, thereby increasing the likelihood of a South Asian council member.
Ultimately, ranked-choice voting may better express New Yorker’s views compared to the old system, Professor Chamberlin said.
“To throw out most of that information by saying, ‘well, you only get to pick one,’ is to lose the texture of public political preferences in such a community,” he said. “If we had that — and people knew it — it might alter how politics develops.”
This article was updated to include information from the New York City Campaign Finance Board.