New York experiments with new voting system in chaotic mayoral race: Breakthrough or disaster?

Some fear the city's first ranked-choice voting race will result in confusion and disenfranchise Black voters

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published May 14, 2021 5:40AM (EDT)

Andrew Yang, Kathryn Garcia, Eric Adams and Dianne Morales (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/WikiCommons/Kris Graves)
Andrew Yang, Kathryn Garcia, Eric Adams and Dianne Morales (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/WikiCommons/Kris Graves)

New York City is about to embark on an experiment that will determine its course for the next four years and could reshape elections across the country for the foreseeable future. But it won't be pretty.

Facing one of the highest coronavirus death tolls in the country, a steep economic recovery and rising violent crime, the city is set to become the largest municipality to roll out ranked-choice voting in its highly consequential Democratic mayoral primary next month. (In practical terms, the Democratic nominee is almost certain to become the next mayor.)

New York voters will be able rank up to five candidates in order of preference, rather than choosing just one. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the votes in the first round (as seems nearly certain), then the last-place candidate is eliminated and the second choices of voters who supported that person are reallocated to other candidates. That process continues until one candidate exceeds 50% and is declared the winner.

Proponents of ranked-choice voting or RCV, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2019, argue that this system allows voters to support the candidate they most prefer rather than "wasting" a vote on a candidate with little chance of winning or strategically voting for a candidate with a better chance of victory. It also requires candidates to reach broader audiences rather than stay in their "lane," and is believed to discourage negative campaigning. But some candidates have raised concerns that the new system, absent a sustained effort at voter education, may disenfranchise voters of color and spark confusion at polling places. And, in a race like the crowded Democratic mayoral primary, a winner may not be determined for weeks.

"The New York City Board of Elections is not the most well-functioning organization. So the challenge with ranked-choice voting is that there needs to be some kind of centralized vote-counting operation," David C. Kimball, a political science professor at the University of  Missouri-St. Louis, said in an interview with Salon. "In San Francisco, which is the next biggest city that uses ranked-choice voting for elections, it can take them up to a week — but they've been doing this now for almost 20 years. You've got a lot of candidates running for mayor in New York, so it's going to take several rounds of re-tabulation."

New York's elections have long been messy, most recently with more than 20% of mail-in ballots disqualified in last year's presidential primary. And they often generate remarkably little interest, especially in primary campaigns, even though general elections are increasingly becoming afterthoughts in the Democratic-dominated city. Less than 25% of Democratic voters turned out for the primary that effectively re-elected Mayor Bill de Blasio four years ago, and that was one of the better turnouts the city has seen. Part of that is by design. New York's elections are held in off-year cycles, which in itself tends to depress turnout by about 50%, and party registration deadlines often prevent newly interested voters from participating in the process at all. This year, the primary has also been moved up by three months, from September to June.

"I do not expect to see lots of voter turnout," David Birdsell, dean of the school of public affairs at Baruch College, told Salon. "You still see most New Yorkers reporting that they're not terribly engaged with the election, and that's no surprise" in a situation where many ordinary people are confronting "literally matters of life and death." 

Birdsell added that "there's just so much distraction" surrounding this year's mayoral campaign, including "the unusual point in the calendar. It cannot be overstated how bad it is for turnout to keep moving the election season. It deprives people of the chance to get accustomed to voting in a particular place at a particular time. It's going to have a depressing effect, and the lack of attention that people are paying in the campaign bodes ill for a turnout surge."

Voters dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, economic recovery and political fallout from the presidential election have so far shown little interest in the mayoral race in America's largest city. Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who has pitched himself as something of a cheerleader for the city, has dominated headlines, likely because he is the only one of the eight top-tier candidates with name recognition above 50%, according to a recent Ipsos poll. Even among likely Democratic voters, only Yang, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer have name recognition above 50%.

As a result of the anemic level interest, many voters are not even aware that the city has a new voting method. City officials have launched a $15 million campaign this month to educate voters about the new ballots, but both candidates and lawmakers have raised concerns that the abrupt rollout of a new system may effectively disenfranchise Black and Latino voters.

Six members of the New York City Council and numerous advocacy groups filed a lawsuit last year arguing that the new system is stacked against minority voters and that the coronavirus pandemic has hampered voter education efforts.

"Physical and fiscal limitations resulting from the pandemic have severely hindered the City's ability to put the new system into effect and prevent the disenfranchisement of New Yorkers of color, seniors, and limited English speakers," the lawmakers said in a statement last year.

"I believe there is an impossibility to educate people in the amount of time necessary on what ranked-choice voting will mean," Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo, one of the lawmakers who joined the suit, said at a hearing in December.

The New York Supreme Court rejected the complaint. The group of lawmakers filed another lawsuit arguing that the Board of Elections had not properly prepared voters for the new system but a judge rejected that suit last week, ruling that it was filed too late and that delaying the implementation of the new system would result in confusion.

Two of the Black candidates in the mayoral race have warned that the new system is being rushed.

"Eric Adams is deeply concerned that ranked choice voting will disenfranchise voters of color," Madia Coleman, a spokesperson for Adams, said in a statement to Salon. "The election is a month away and a number of voters do not know what ranked choice voting is or how to navigate it. The city's efforts to educate voters on ranked choice voting has not been sufficient, and it has failed to translate that education into the many different languages that New Yorkers speak. The Adams campaign has made it a mission to perform voter education on ranked choice voting in conjunction with the campaign's voter outreach."

Ray McGuire, a former Citigroup executive, has also said he is worried about the potential impact on voters of color. "Ray is still concerned about the implementation of RCV," Lupe Todd-Medina, a spokesperson for Ray McGuire, said in a statement to Salon. "This major change requires education and understanding across the board to all New Yorkers. This is why Ray has incorporated voter education around RCV into every aspect of this campaign, including in our digital and arming volunteers with information to share on the phone and on the doors. Ray was encouraged to see the mayor recently invest more funding towards educating voters on the new process but with six weeks left till a major citywide election, it should have been done much sooner."

Activists have also sounded the alarm.

"Some progressive white folks got together in a room and thought this would be good, but it's not good for our community," Hazel Dukes, president of the New York state chapter of the NAACP, told The New York Times.

Kirsten John Foy, president of the advocacy group Arc of Justice, also appeared to question the motives of ranked-choice advocates. "The primary argument for ranked-choice voting is that it expands access to elected office for Black and brown officials, but we don't have that problem," she said last year. "This is a solution in search of a problem."

But Bertha Lewis, president of the Black Institute, argued at the time that there was "plenty of time for voters to learn to rank their vote."

"Let me say it plainly: Black voters are not stupid," she testified during a city council meeting last year. "It is insulting to say that they will not be able to understand."

Maya Wiley, a former lawyer for the de Blasio administration and one of the other Black candidates in the race, has backed the system, arguing that the runoff elections previously used in the city dilute the votes of people of color, according to the Times.

"What the record suggests in other jurisdictions that have tried this," Birdsell said, "is that you're going to wind up with about half of the electorate familiar with the process, or who at least have heard of the process and know what to expect, even if they've never experienced it themselves before. The other half learn about it when they actually get to the polling place. People generally respond favorably to ranked-choice voting once they have been through the process. The record is mixed on whether they feel it makes their voices heard better than a single vote may, but some of that depends on the political dynamics."

Research on whether ranked-choice voting negatively affects voters of color has been mixed as well. A report released by the nonpartisan voting rights group FairVote on Wednesday found that it may benefit candidates of color because winning candidates of color "grew their vote totals between the first and final ballot rounds at a higher rate than winning White candidates." It also found that voters of color tend to rank more candidates than white voters.

"Ranked-choice voting does encourage more candidates to run for local office," Kimball said. "Sometimes that's a challenge, to get people to run for local office, and it seems to me to produce more women and candidates of color — and to some degree more success in winning seats." But research has been limited, he added, and the trends observed so far have only been identified in city council races, not mayoral ones.

A study by Craig Burnett, a political science professor at Hofstra University, came up with different results. He found that voters in Black and Latino neighborhoods in San Francisco and Oakland were more likely to rank just one candidate, while voters in white neighborhoods were more likely to use every available choice.

"Ranked-choice voting has the potential to harm minority representation," Burnett told Salon. "In my own research, I've seen an increase in the percentage of incomplete ballots — that is, they select fewer options than the ballot allows — in majority-minority voting precincts. In those contests, however, there was 'no harm' because exhaustion rates were at least as low as other voting groups."

2016 study by Jason McDaniel, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, found that voter turnout declined among Black and Asian voters after the implementation of ranked-choice voting and that "RCV increased disparities in turnout between groups who are more likely to vote and those who are less likely to vote. The conclusion is that RCV tends to exacerbate differences between sophisticated voters and those that are less sophisticated."

Dianne Morales, a former public school teacher and nonprofit executive who is viewed as the most progressive of the major mayoral candidates this year, has repeatedly expressed concerns about the city's efforts to educate voters about the new system.

"It is a shame that the city is not doing more to educate the public on ranked-choice voting," Bradley Stein, a spokesperson for Morales, said in a statement to Salon. "It is almost entirely contingent on campaigns to educate voters on how to use the new system. Luckily, polls so far indicate that voters find RCV easy to understand when filling out a sample ballot. Still, the city must ensure that poll workers are properly instructed in RCV and actively help voters on Election Day to make sure they know and understand how to properly fill out their ballots."

Stein said that without voter education and voter registration efforts "it is unlikely that RCV alone will attract voters to participate in the election." But Morales' campaign has praised the ranked-choice system and Stein said its efforts have "always taken into account how RCV will change the political landscape of this election cycle."

"RCV puts power back in the hands of people and makes it possible for non-establishment, grassroots campaigns to have a shot at winning municipal elections," Stein said. "While our primary focus is getting voters to rank Dianne first, we fiercely encourage voters who are set in their first choice to mark Dianne second on their ballot. Additionally, until May our campaign's voter outreach strategy was centered around educating New Yorkers about ranked-choice voting, in addition to Dianne's background and platform."

RCV can also help cities run smoother and less expensive elections, as compared to holding a runoff if no candidate wins a majority.

"It's a huge advantage, whether you're talking turnout, whether you're talking about election management in a time of pandemic, whether you're talking about public safety, to be able to do this all in one action rather than mounting those actions," Birdsell said. "Every time you can make elections easier, less taxing, literally and figuratively citizen-friendly, you have better results at the end of the day."

Ranked-choice voting also tends to disfavor "polarizing" candidates, he said, because they are unlikely to appear as second or third choices among voters who don't already support them.

"That's not to say that bland, approachable, mild-mannered candidates are always going to do well in these environments, but people who have relatively lower negatives with decent name recognition are disproportionately poised to benefit from RCV," he said.

It's not at all clear whether any of the candidates in the Democratic mayoral race fit that bill. The three apparent leaders have all been polarizing personalities on the campaign trail.

Yang, who gained national attention with his universal basic income proposal in the presidential primary, has never held political office or even voted in a New York City election. Multiple of his opponents have compared him to Donald Trump, a comparison Yang has not welcomed. More recently, The New York Times highlighted Yang's nonprofit group Venture for America, which raised tens of millions to create 100,000 jobs in struggling cities and earned Yang recognition from the Obama administration, but ultimately created just 150 jobs. He also drew intra-party criticism this week after issuing a tweet backing Israel in its latest clash with Palestinians, though he later issued a statement admitting he "failed to acknowledge pain on both sides."

Yang has also faced questions over his ties to Bradley Tusk, an ally of billionaire former Mayor Michael Bloomberg who has worked as a venture capitalist and political strategist for corporations like Uber and AT&T. Even Yang's allies, like Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., who endorsed his candidacy, view him as a political blank slate they can shape "on every issue." As a result, some are worried that in Yang, Tusk has "a vessel potentially for his own interests, whether it's Uber, cryptocurrency, or gambling," wrote New York Magazine's Clare Malone.

Adams moved ahead of Yang for the first time in a recent poll but the former Republican and longtime police officer has drawn scrutiny for his decades in New York politics and his support from real estate developers, who have long been blamed for pushing out the city's working class and jacking up the cost of living. As borough president in Brooklyn, Adams drew allegations of corruption by using his nonprofit to skirt campaign finance rules and raise tens of thousands of dollars from donors with business before the city, The New York Daily News reported in 2019.

Stringer, who has spent even more time in New York politics and is generally viewed as a progressive, has been among the top three in polls for months. But his campaign was rocked last month by a sexual misconduct allegation by lobbyist Jean Kim, who volunteered for one of his political campaigns two decades ago. Kim alleged that Stringer in 2001 made unwanted advances and forcibly kissed her on several occasions. Stringer has denied the misconduct claim, insisting that the two had a consensual relationship. That did not stop such progressive-oriented groups as the Working Families Party and Sunrise Movement from retracting their endorsements.

It seems conceivable that Stringer's standing in the race while that of Kathryn Garcia, the former city sanitation commissioner, interim Housing Authority chief and COVID-19 "food czar," rises. Garcia landed the coveted New York Times endorsement this week but has yet to gain any visible traction in opinion polls.

"I'm generally skeptical that endorsements make a great deal of difference," Birdsell said. "But with five weeks of dash to the finish, he speculated, the Times endorsement could propel a low name-recognition candidate like Garcia. 

It's unclear how endorsements will affect a race where most of the candidates are largely unknown to the electorate. Some groups have endorsed multiple candidates for the ranked-choice ballot. The Working Families Party is backing both Wiley and Morales, who is running on an ambitious platform of expanding low-income housing, providing a guaranteed income for the poor, desegregating schools, and cutting the police budget in half.

"We have two women candidates driving the progressive agenda in this race," Sochie Nnaemeka, director of the New York Working Families Party, said in a statement to Salon, "and we recognize how strategically important it is for New Yorkers to rank Dianne Morales and Maya Wiley as their top two choices to stop a Wall Street-funded candidate from buying the election." 

"There's no doubt that we're in a new era of voting, and people are excited when they learn about the new changes. The city must do everything in its power to educate voters on the process ahead of the primary," Nnaemeka added. "The WFP and our candidates are committed to educating voters so that people are fully prepared when they cast their ballots. Voter education is essential to making sure the reform delivers on its promise of an inclusive democracy."

Very little money spent by the campaigns to date, with the exceptions of McGuire and former HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, whose campaign is backed by millions from a super PAC bankrolled almost entirely his wealthy father. Both were widely derided this week after guessing in separate interviews that the median home price in Brooklyn was between $80,000 and $100,000, when the real figure is around $900,000.

Until a few days ago, McGuire and Donovan had been the only candidates to spend money on television ads. "So many of these campaigns have gotten off to a dangerously late start," Birdsell said. "Everybody seems to be holding on to their money, with precious few exceptions."

The campaign has obviously also been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, which may have contributed to the lack of media attention, visibility or any tangible sense of momentum.

"Clearly, this is an unusual election," Birdsell said. "People have been campaigning in pandemic mode, which means very little in the way of retail face-to-face campaigning. It means people aren't gathering, it means you aren't generating the kind of buzz from events that you might  in a more traditional campaign cycle."

All eight top-tier candidates faced off in the first mayoral debate on Thursday (after this article was finalized), which could lead to the first serious realignment of the field. No candidate has yet had a "breakthrough moment" or garnered serious national attention, all eyes will be on the new ranked-choice system on June 22.

New York joins at least 18 other municipalities that have already implemented or approved similar systems, and is by far the largest. (It only uses RCV in the party primaries, not the general election.) While RCV is primarily used in city elections, Maine has implemented ranked-choice voting for all state-level and congressional primaries and congressional general elections as well. (The population of Maine, however, is about 1.4 million, less than one-fifth the population of New York City.)

"Having bigger jurisdictions, more high-profile places using it, I think will prompt some other places to consider it," Kimball predicted. "I don't know if it'll open the floodgates or anything. But there does seem to be greater interest in RCV now that places like New York have adopted it."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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