Voting (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
Voting is the backbone of our democracy, and should reflect the will of the people. That is the idea behind New York City’s 2019 vote, in which 73% of voters supported a ballot question changing our electoral process from a single choice plurality voting to a new system, known as ranked-choice voting (RCV). Following the lead of cities like Minneapolis and San Francisco, voters decided it was time to change the way we select the leaders in our local government.
In party primary and special elections for city government positions, RCV allows voters to rank up to five candidates by order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the candidate in last place is eliminated and that candidate’s votes are redistributed based on those voters’ second choices. The process continues until a candidate receives an outright majority.
According to proponents of the new system, there are many benefits, including ensuring that winners have broader support, discouraging negative campaigning, and avoiding costly run-off elections. But in addition to reflecting the will of the people, it must also be easy and accessible, and there are strong concerns about the timing of implementation and the ability of our New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB) to properly inform voters of this new change to how they will be electing their representatives.
In the first special election this year, in Queens’ City Council District 24, a candidate received a majority of first-place votes, negating the opportunity to see ranked-choice voting in action. When I speak to voters about the upcoming City Council special election here in the Northwest Bronx, in which I am running, it is clear that many do not know about the shift to ranked-choice voting, and even those who vote in every election are unfamiliar with the concept. This is deeply concerning, as the democratic promise of RCV relies on an informed and educated electorate.
But due to a lack of outreach and education on the part of the CFB, which is tasked with those responsibilities by the RCV law, it is likely that voters may end up selecting their top choice while leaving other choices blank, which could effectively disenfranchise those voters and leave them without the voice they were promised when these reforms were made. This is not the intention of these reforms, and if we want to fully embrace the new system, widespread education must be implemented by the CFB. Even worse, voters may end up invalidating their ballots due to errors. I was very troubled to learn that while there are opportunities for those voting in person to fix ballot errors, there is no ballot curing process for voters who vote by mail and vote for more than one candidate in the same ranking, or “over-vote” — a mistake that we can predict and address if we take action now.
As New Yorkers, we like to think that our city government reflects our progressive values. However, the most vulnerable residents in our city have always been left behind, and we often fail to get resources to those who need it the most. We saw this happen in last year’s elections, where problems with absentee ballots disproportionately negatively impacted seniors and people with disabilities, and in the middle of a pandemic forced voters to choose between their health and casting their vote. Without proper education, the new ranked-choice voting system has the potential to disenfranchise voters who are historically overlooked, including immigrants, people of color, and older adults.
The CFB’s actions to reach voters are insufficient. It is currently hosting RCV education webinars, but they are not widely publicized or advertised to the general public. To try to supplement these, the CFB has also enlisted community groups to conduct RCV workshops for voters. This means that a voter’s opportunity to learn about the new system can depend on the enterprise of their local community organizations, and whether or not residents are plugged in to those organizations. We are already seeing more of these workshops taking place in white, affluent parts of our city, often for younger or more technologically-adept individuals. The pandemic has shone a light on the digital divide that affects our communities with inadequate access to the internet, which is crucial to attending these trainings amid a pandemic. Furthermore, there appears to be little effort to target non-English speakers, making language access yet another barrier for RCV education.
I am dismayed by the thought of voters being confused while they fill out their ballots. The CFB must increase its efforts to run a robust public education campaign immediately. Our city must immediately expand community outreach, and provide education on TV, digital platforms, and radio. RCV information should already be posted on the almost 2,000 LinkNYC kiosks across the city. We should also advertise on our subways platforms and bus stops. We should incorporate RCV education into social services, such as meal delivery to seniors. This education campaign must extend to every neighborhood in our city, with dedicated resources for inclusive language access.
I have fought to expand access to early voting and mail-in balloting, and to make the process of voting easier and accessible for all New Yorkers, including non-English speakers and people with disabilities. The rollout of RCV still leaves many questions unanswered, which threatens to disenfranchise wide groups of voters. Our seniors, who have been voting the same way their entire lives, now must contend with this new system without sufficient education. It is not beyond the capability of the CFB to do this right. If we don’t get serious about ranked-choice voting education for our city’s voters, the very communities that need the most support during this pandemic will once again be voiceless.
Eric Dinowitz is a candidate for City Council in the District 11 special election taking place on March 23 in the Bronx. On Twitter @EricDinowitz.