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Campaign Finance Board Details Ranked-Choice Voting Education Efforts

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Voting! (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB) held a public meeting of its Voter Assistance Advisory Committee (VAAC) last week to discuss the ongoing process of ranked-choice voting outreach and education. The CFB is tasked with those efforts by the recent city Charter change approved by voters in 2019 that is ushering ranked-choice voting into effect for party primary and special elections for city government positions, with the first implementation happening this year. There are several special elections happening in the months leading up to the June party primaries, which will feature a full slate of elections for citywide, borough-wide, and City Council seats.

CFB Assistant Executive Director for Public Affairs Eric Friedman hosted, and was joined by VAAC members Daniele Gerard and Mazeda Uddin, along with other officials from the Campaign Finance Board and DemocracyNYC, which is directly part of the mayor’s office. 

Xamayla Rose, deputy public advocate for civic and community empowerment, represented the office of Public Advocate Jumaane Williams (who is an ex officio member of VAAC), while Perry Grossman of the NYCLU also participated.

Allie Swatek, director of policy and research at the CFB, gave a presentation describing the group’s efforts to educate voters about the new voting system, which allows voters to rank up to five candidates for each seat by order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of the first-choice votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated and that candidate’s voters are redistributed based on their second choices. The process continues until a winner with a majority is declared.

The CFB’s voter education and outreach has been organized under five ”buckets,” Swatek said, “train-the-trainer,” voter trainings, panels and events, media coverage, and direct outreach.

The first, “train-the-trainer,” is “targeted to community organizations to prepare them to be a ranked-choice voting resource.” The trainings are about an hour long, and designed to educate community organizations on ranked-choice voting and how to best communicate ranked-choice voting with the populations that those organizations work with. According to Swatek, the first CFB “train-the-trainer” event on ranked-choice voting was held on January 6 and, as of February 24, the CFB had hosted 25 events with 427 attendees.

Swatek touted the success of partnering with elected officials to host “train-the-trainer” events, citing the first two training sessions, which were held on January 6 and 7 in Queens City Council District 24. The district was the first to use ranked-choice voting for a special election that culminated February 2 in order to fill a vacant Council seat. The events, which brought a total of 150 attendees, were held with the office of Assemblymember Nily Rozic, and with local organizations Chayya, India Home, the South Asian Council for Social Services, and Women for Afghan Women.

Another priority of the train-the-trainer events, aside from the ranked-choice voting special elections (there are several taking place in February and March), has been focusing on a specific audience and partnering with organizations like the Hispanic Federation and Disability Rights New York. The Disability Rights New York session, hosted January 21, had 40 attendees and its YouTube recording has had over 90 watches. Future train-the-trainer events will be held with the Hispanic Federation’s partner organizations and Faith in New York Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island.

Swatek also mentioned the CFB’s new train-the-trainer events for youth, the first of which launched February 23 with 25 attendees, describing them as “kind of incredible because most of these young people can’t even vote, they just want to learn about it so that they can tell their parents and their siblings that can vote.” The CFB intends to hold one youth train-the trainer event every month.

On voter training Swatek said that the CFB has hosted a total of 43 events with 2,400 attendees. At the trainings, voters are directly given information on what ranked-choice voting is and how to fill out a ranked-choice voting ballot. 

A youth focused event with a combined 436 attendees and viewers was held on January 13 on Facebook Livestream, in partnership with the YVote and the Department of Youth and Community Development. On January 19 and 26, the CFB partnered with Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, the city’s Civic Engagement Commission, and DemocracyNYC to host two voter training events, which drew around 300 attendees. Two more voter training sessions were held on Facebook Live on February 10 and 17. The first was co-hosted with Bronx City Council Member Vanessa Gibson (who is running for borough president) and the Stonewall Community Development Corporation and had 406 attendees or followers, while the second was with Queens Assemblymember Alica Hyndman and had 398 attendees or followers. “We’ve found out that using Facebook Live is a really good way of reaching a bunch of voters at once,” Swatek said, “...the cool thing about it is that the video stays on the person’s site.”

On March 9 and 11, the CFB will host voter trainiings with the Office of the Bronx Borough President, and on March 16 and 18 Spanish-language events with them, as well as Dominicanos USA and NALEO. 

With panels and events, Swatek cited their ability to get leads for voter training events, saying of such appearances, “They’re a little bit different than trainings because we get to deliver a really short bit of information about ranking-choice voting...once people know we can give trainings...we frequently get emails or interest and invitations to other events.”

In late January, the CFB joined three panels to discuss ranked-choice voting with the civic organization Association for a Better New York (ABNY), news publication City & State, and the Staten Island North Shore Democrats. Future panels and events will be with the Bronx Chapter of Jack and Jill, Fund for the City of New York, APA VOICE, and others.

Swatek mentioned the NYC Elections Consortium RCV Working Group, which is composed of government officials and advocacy and community groups. It has met every two weeks since December, focusing on outreach, communications, and policy ideas for implementing ranked-choice voting. “We’re really proud of the work we’re doing here and think it’s a really important resource,” Swatek said of the working group.

Swatek highlighted the CFB public relations team’s efforts to have information about ranked-choice voting and the CFB training offerings included at various New York City media outlets. 

Swatek concluded by speaking about the CFB’s direct outreach efforts through their over 40 volunteers. In anticipation of the Queens special elections in February, the CFB reached using text message around 24,000 voters in District 24 and 3,000 voters in District 31, which just finished its own special election. For the upcoming Bronx special elections, in Council Districts 11 and 15, the CFB has been reaching out via text to around 60,000 voters. 

On communications strategies, Mitchell Cohen, content strategy manager at the CFB, outlined the organization’s communications strategy for educating voters on ranked-choice voting. Working with the Center for Civic Design and drawing upon communication styles used in other municipalities such as San Francisco and Minneapolis, the CFB is using what they call the “bite, snack, meal approach.” This strategy provides voters with materials on ranked-choice voting that can either be quickly consumed and digested (bite), moderately in-depth (snack), or fully in-depth (meal). The goal is that voters can choose the style and amount of information that works for them with “multiple points of entry.”

Under the “bite” approach, the CFB mailed out postcards on ranked-choice voting to all 342,978 voters in Queens who could participate in the February ranked-choice special elections, and to those in the Bronx who will be eligible to vote in March. Findings from the Center of Civic Design, which tested “certain materials with New York City voters,” established that successful RCV postcards had a clear “visual example of a correct ballot,” “clear step-by-step instructions,” and “provide context about how to get more information.” According to Cohen, around half of voters who were tested with the Center for Civic Design postcards felt they were comfortable going to vote in a ranked-choice voting election.

The CFB has also been using social media posts and videos. They worked with DemocracyNYC and the Mayor’s Public Engagement Unit to create a social media toolkit, translated into 12 languages. An animated video describing ranked-choice voting will be released on an unspecified date.

The RCV home page and FAQs page can qualify as an RCV “snack” or “meal,” and include information on the reasoning behind ranked-choice voting and how to fill out a ballot. The FAQ page answers various specific questions such as about how writing in candidates works under ranked-choice voting and when results from elections will be delivered. Both are translated into Bengali, Chinese (Traditional), Korean, and Spanish.

Eve Grassfield, a policy advisor at DemocracyNYC, spoke about the city’s work with ranked-choice voting. DemocracyNYC is a citywide initiative created in 2018 by Mayor de Blasio to expand voting access and engagement. Greenfield said that DemocracyNYC has “hit the ground running educating voters on this new system” by hosting workshops, posting on social media, and phone-banking. Workshops are hosted in multiple languages such as Spanish and Urdu, and also amplify other city resources such as COVID-19 vaccinations and testing. Grassfield said that DemocracyNYC has been working “collaboratively” with other city entities such as the CFB, the Civic Engagement Commission, and the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs to translate educational materials on ranked choice voting into more than twelve different languages.

DemocracyNYC is also working with community-based organizations on a digital mock ballot tool to allow organizations to create practice ranked-choice voting ballots in their language of choice. Available in 14 languages, the tool will allow voters to “test out the ranked-choice voting ballot before heading to the polls by voting on things like their favorite New York City snack or park.”

Grossman, of the NYCLU’s Voting Rights Project, discussed the New York Voting Rights Act (NYVRA), a bill currently under consideration by the state Legislature. The bill, which Grossman called “the bee’s knees,” seeks to produce racial and ethnic voting-access equity across the state. According to Grossman it “favors the voter, favors counting the ballot” as currently there are “too many ways for a voter’s vote to get knocked out.”

The act also provides for enhanced action against voting rights suppression, proves greater legislative guidance to the courts about treating voter suppression cases, and creates a statewide voting database housed in SUNY for public policy analysis. It creates more causes of action against voter intimidation and “attempts to mirror the crown jewel of the Voting Rights Act…the pre-clearance regime,” for counties identified by a formula as “having a particular history of discrimination.”

The next meeting of the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee will be in April.

by Grace Getman for Gotham Gazette

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