Gotham Gazette Fri, 22 Jan 2021 07:21:43 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Queens Council District Set to Hold City's First Ranked-Choice Election election pres rockaway

New York City voting (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

In spite of the challenges posed by the pandemic, and in some ways in response to them, 2020 proved to be a historic year for voting in New York City, with 3 million ballots cast in the presidential election in November, including a record-breaking 662,314 absentee ballots after the state eased rules on voting by mail, and unprecedented long lines at early voting poll-sites in the first presidential election with the nine-day period implemented in New York.

Moving into 2021, the newest change impacting New Yorkers’ ballots is the first-ever implementation of ranked-choice voting (RCV), which applies to special elections and party primary elections for city government positions.

The launch of ranked-choice voting will be a special election to replace the vacant seat formerly held by Rory Lancman in the 24th City Council District, covering parts of eastern Queens including Kew Gardens Hills, Pomonok, Eastchester, Fresh Meadows, Hillcrest, Jamaica Estates, Briarwood, Parkway Village, Jamaica Hills, and Jamaica. The ballot is set and absentee voting is underway, while early voting runs January 23-January 31, and election day itself February 2.

The winner will serve out the rest of this term for Lancman, who took a position in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration, which means the rest of 2021. Meanwhile, the regularly-scheduled 2021 election for the seat, along with the rest of the City Council and city government, will take place with the primary in June and a fall general election. The winner of the special election, like those in several other City Council districts with special elections from December or upcoming, will quickly have to defend his or her seat.

The race in City Council District 24 will be crucial not only for representation for that district and its residents, but as a litmus test for ranked-choice voting’s strengths and weaknesses in advance of the other special elections set for February and March, as well as the full citywide primaries in June.

Six of the City Council hopefuls in the eight-candidate District 24 race appeared this past week at a forum on ranked-choice voting, hosted by Rank the Vote NYC a coalition of elected officials, business and labor leaders, and other reform groups that led the charge in 2019 to implement ranked-choice voting in New York City, Common Cause NY, the nonpartisan organization behind Rank the Vote NYC that has led education efforts on ranked-choice voting in New York City, the Queens Daily Eagle, Disability Rights NY, and the Northeast Queens Chapter of the NAACP. The event was moderated by David Brand, the managing editor of the Queens Daily Eagle, and Aditi Lamba, an anchor at ITV Gold, a South Asian network.

The six candidates, listed in alphabetical order by last name, included Moumita Ahmed, a progressive community organizer, who is endorsed by the Working Families Party; James Gennaro, the former City Council member for District 24 in Queens, who served three terms from 2002 to 2013; Neeta Jain, a Democratic district leader and practicing psychologist; Dilip Nath, a higher education executive and president of the New American Voters Association; Deepti Sharma, a small business advocate and entrepreneur, including as founder of Food to Eat, a catering platform for small and mostly immigrant-owned restaurants; and Soma Syed, a practicing attorney and Queens County Women’s Bar Association president. Candidates Michael Brown, a real estate agent, and Mujib Rahman, a community activist, were not present at the forum. All candidates are Democratic, and with the exception of Gennaro, all are first-time candidates to the City Council. Special elections in the city are non-partisan, whereby candidates run on self-created ballot lines, so there are no party primaries or ballot lines from the major or even minor parties.

The content of the forum focused on how candidates were incorporating ranked-choice voting into their campaign outreach, including education on ranked-choice voting, how ranked-choice voting would minimize vote splitting, or where ideologically or demographically similar candidates split a base of support, increasing the likelihood of a dissimilar candidate winning instead, and how the new voting system was affecting their candidacies overall, including broaching “taboo” or “hot-button” topics with voters and their interactions with the other candidates. Forum participants were not asked questions about district-specific issues, although candidates nevertheless raised them in their responses.

In the interest of time, Brand and Lamba introduced the candidates themselves. Participating candidates appeared at the same time and took turns answering the same questions. They were each given 1-2 minutes to answer each question.

Kenny Cohen, the president of the Northeast Queens NAACP, opened the forum saying, “NAACP has been fighting for voting rights since its inception in 1909. To see this beautiful, diverse group of candidates running here in this City Council District 24 in Queens is a beautiful sight. And it's a testament to the work that NAACP and all the civil rights advocates in the past have done to get us to this point.”

Before the Q&A portion of the forum began, Sean Dugar, the education campaign program director for Rank the Vote NYC, a citywide education and outreach initiative on ranked-choice voting, explained how ranked-choice voting works with a slideshow presentation, followed by a mock election.

In summary, the new ranked-choice voting process allows voters to select up to five candidates (including a write-in) in order of preference. To win outright, a candidate must reach over 50% of the first-place votes. If a candidate does not win a majority of first-place votes on first count, then the candidate with the lowest number of first-place votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to the remaining candidates based on their voters’ second choices. This process repeats itself until only two candidates are left, and then the person with most votes is declared the winner. The system will apply starting this year to party primary and special elections for City Council, Borough President, Public Advocate, City Comptroller, and Mayor.

The goals of ranked-choice voting include preventing polarized elections, promoting demographically and ideologically diverse candidates and officeholders, increasing voter awareness of candidates who are running, disincentivizing negative campaigning, and eliminating the need for costly runoff elections, which have applied to party primaries for citywide positions. And perhaps most of all, ranked-choice voting is meant to ensure that the winner of crowded elections has broad support among the constituents they are elected to represent.

Although the referendum passed with nearly 75% of the vote when a Charter Revision Commission put ranked-choice voting before New York City voters in the fall of 2019, critics have argued that it was an especially low turnout election given little was on the ballot and that the city has not adequately prepared voters for the change, potentially leading to voter suppression in marginalized communities where voters may not rank as many choices. But proponents of the new system disagree, pointing out that organizers in communities where voter suppression is more common led the charge for ranked-choice voting in the first place and that there is a robust voter-education underway. They also note that the 2019 Charter Revision Commission did painstaking work in a public process before proposing ranked-choice voting.

Brand kicked off the Q&A portion of the forum, saying, “It's a historic moment. It's our city's first use of ranked-choice voting, and it’s cool that it's happening in Queens.”

Lamba added that candidates in the race for District 24 were also scheduled to meet the following night on Thursday, January 14 for a forum co-hosted by multiple local organizations — Chhaya CDC, a housing advocacy organization geared toward low-income South Asian and Indo-Caribbean New Yorkers; India Home, a center for senior care; the Chinese-American Planning Council, an organization dedicated to the economic empowerment of Chinese American, immigrant, and low-income communities; Shetu, a community-based non-profit organization that assists low-income, Bangladeshi immigrant populations; APA VOICE, a non-partisan, pan-Asian coalition that seeks to increase civic engagement in the Asian-American community; and the MinKwon Center for Community Action, a Korean-led community group focused on social services for marginalized Asian Americans — and encouraged audience members to attend.

Brand posed the first question, asking candidates how City Council District 24’s diversity has influenced their campaign outreach. According to 2010 Census data, District 24’s total 167,448 population was 33.2% white, 28.9% Asian, 21.8% Hispanic, and 11.7% Black. District 24 has the largest Bangladeshi population of any City Council District, with over 10,000 people, part of an overall New York City population where Bangladeshis are the fifth largest Asian group overall, with almost 62,000 residents, according to the 2015 American Community Survey..

“I actually helped pass ranked-choice voting as field and education director for Common Cause. I believe in this way of voting; otherwise, I wouldn't have gotten involved,” Ahmed said.

“As the only renter running, I am mobilizing all of our communities around the issue of housing justice,” she continued, listing numerous endorsements from various civic groups, including the Hispanic American Voter Association, the Working Families Party, New York Communities for Change, Bangladeshi American Advocacy Group, and The Jewish Vote. “That's how we're talking to voters. That's how we're advancing the agenda of ranked-choice voting.”

Sharma began on a personal note, saying, “I was born and brought up in this district on 150 Fifth Street, right by Queens College. My son is going to the same school that I went to, and our focus has been talking to every single voter.” Although Sharma is one of six candidates in the race hoping to become the first South Asian elected to the City Council, she also emphasized, “I'm not here to represent the South Asian district, but every single person that makes this beautiful district exactly what it is.” She went on to add that she wants to prioritize her voters' concerns, citing COVID-19 relief, the vaccine rollout, and safe schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods.

“What better place to have ranked voting than here,” said Nath, referring to Queens, which is the most racially and ethnically diverse county in the country. He went on to praise term limits for creating space for new and diverse leadership, saying that “ranked-choice voting will further enhance the concept of diversity and inclusion.” He added, “What matters to you, what matters to Jewish [communities], what matters to South Asian or Latino [communities], is what matters to me.”

While Jain concurred that ranked-choice voting is important for amplifying diverse voices, including immigrants, she disagreed with the question’s premise, saying, “It is not affecting my election.” Jain highlighted her experience of community leadership — 30 years of practicing psychology, four years as a Democratic district leader, eight years as a founder of the civic engagement group International Ahimsa Foundation, and one year as the elected president of Daniel Patrick Moynihan Democratic Club of Queens — for “making a difference in their [people’s] lives.”

Jain stressed the range of problems that she has personally witnessed people facing during the pandemic, citing small business owners who went to her for “help to fill out the forms for SBA loans” and “kids suffering at home” because “schools do not have proper devices” for remote learning.

Gennaro emphasized his political career and the network of contacts he developed throughout his tenure as a City Council member, saying, “I was the one that appointed Kenny Cohen to the community board,” referring to Community Board 8 in Queens, and “I appointed the first Bangladeshi woman to Community Board 8,” alluding to Nargis Ahmed. “I’m quite confident that my relationships will serve me well in the upcoming election,” he said. Recalling his history with the community, Gennaro said, “I've had the ability to immerse myself in every community and really have a profound impact. I think people remember and appreciate that.”

Since his departure from the City Council in 2013, Gennaro has served in the Cuomo administration as the deputy commissioner for New York City Sustainability and Resiliency at the Department of Environmental Conservation.

In contrast, Syed said, “We need leadership that is of the future, not of the past.” Growing up in Jamaica and her experience as an attorney working pro-bono cases, has enabled her to form deep bonds within the community, across racial lines, Syed said. “Whether it be the Black community, Hispanic community, the Asian community, the Jewish community, and the white community — we are all together in one community. We’re all looking to better our lives, and the lives of our future, our children.”

Lamba asked if there were any issues that candidates considered “taboo” or “too hot” that they felt ranked-choice voting allowed them to talk about more openly or even campaign on.

“We have to make sure that we're talking about workers’ rights, and that includes sex workers,” began Ahmed, pointing out how certain groups like undocumented immigrants are excluded from federal aid and government protections. On that note, Ahmed spotlighted the “homelessness situation” as a “top priority,” explaining that “we’re closer to being homeless than becoming billionaires right now.” Even though these topics are often seen as taboo because “we’re talking about working-class Black and brown folks,” Ahmed said she believes they shouldn’t be. “That’s why ranked-choice voting is so great,” she added, “because it allows candidates like myself who come from working-class talk about working class issues.”

‘Policing is one of those issues that I've noticed that does alienate a few people, or groups of people,” said Sharma, ““one of the most important things that we need to think about.” To illustrate her point, Sharma described an incident as told to her by a Queens College student, who experienced a panic attack during finals. He called 911, but instead of a mental health professional or social worker, police officers responded to the call, and they handcuffed him. According to Sharma, “That didn’t help the situation. That made it worse.” She explained that the crux of the problem is funding, and then she centered Pomonok Community Center, which “used to have programs like taekwondo, gymnastics, and dance” but now “the only thing that exists there is homework help.”

“When we talk about investing in our communities, we need to keep talking about where the money is going to come from,” Sharma said, though she did not explicitly raise support for the “defund the police” movement.

For Gennaro, “Nothing is taboo. Nothing is off the table. Everything has to be discussed.” In response to Sharma’s mention of the Pomonok Community Center, where she said she personally benefited from its enrichment programs, Gennaro said, “I was happy to fund the good programming that she enjoyed.”

Sharma clarified by saying, “I did that in the 90s, though,” predating Gennaro’s tenure on the City Council.

On the question of taboo issues, Syed said, “I haven’t shied away from any issue. Everything that’s happening to even one person in our community needs to be discussed.”

Jain flagged mental health as a conventionally taboo subject that she believes needs to be discussed more on a political scale. “School children are growing up with anxiety. Our youth are out on the streets, and they are doing more drug abuse. Our seniors are going through depression.” She warned, “We really have to pay attention” because “it’s not going to go away that easily.”

Nath decried the state of remote learning, calling out the economic pressures placed upon low-income families who cannot afford high-speed broadband or laptops or iPads. He also pointed out that the closure of three hospitals in Queens in 2009 effectively transformed the borough into the epicenter of the pandemic a decade later.

Brand then asked candidates how they thought ranked-choice voting might serve voters and how it has affected the way they talk about themselves, as well as other candidates.

Candidates seemed to unanimously agree that ranked-choice voting creates a more level playing field for candidates in the electoral process. “RCV is giving a broader platform to everyone,” said Jain.

Candidates also agreed that the new voting system allowed them to focus more on the issues rather than political attacks. “It's giving a chance for voters to actually research and look up every single candidate because now that they know that they're not just voting for their number one,” said Sharma. She also said that these conversations with voters in which she’s able to focus solely on the issues, have enabled her to squeeze into voters’ number two slots in cases where she isn’t their top pick, thereby securing as many votes as possible.

Lamba asked candidates how they thought ranked-choice voting minimized the spoiler effect, or vote splitting between candidates who share similar demographics or ideologies.

“We are trying very hard through RCV not to split votes,” began Jain, “but I think that it’s still going to happen.” Jain said she has conducted an educational seminar for voters on ranked-choice voting and is planning another one soon, which she hopes will minimize vote splitting.

Syed expressed some doubt over the abilities of the New York City Campaign Finance Board and New York City Board of Elections to “invest enough resources and time to educate voters about RCV.” She went on to say that these shortcomings are “going to affect our minority communities who are already marginalized, who are afraid of the voting process. It falls on the candidates to pick up the slack and educate the voters.”

Gennaro said he didn’t think significant vote splitting would occur, saying, “I think that the whole idea of ranked-choice voting is to turn that splitting phenomenon on its head.” He did concur with Syed that “there has not been enough education by the Board of Elections and by the Campaign Finance Board,” concluding that “this election is going to be a little bit of a shakeout.”

Nath did not directly answer the question but voiced praise for the “many minority candidates running for office” compared to when he ran in 2005 for the same seat.

Sharma said she’s hoping to mitigate vote splitting by staying focused on the issues rather than identity politics. “I don't just talk about my race. I don't just talk about my gender. I talk about the things that are affecting them.”

“The beauty of ranked-choice voting is, yes, it diversifies the slate in terms of our identity. But issues, as well,” added Ahmed, citing her pro-worker platform.

Brand then asked what was possibly the most controversial yet straight-forward question posed during the forum: who is your second choice?

Sharma answered, “We are still analyzing our second choice based on how these forums go. I want to know that people are the same in every room, and don't pick and choose what they say, when it's convenient.”

Jain also said she was in the process of evaluating her candidate picks.

“My ballot is private,” said Gennaro, “but I will keep my eye on the candidates as the race progresses.” When Brand called this a “cop-out answer,” Gennaro told him, “I reject your characterization,” claiming that revealing his second choice would in effect attempt to “manipulate the voters.”

Syed also said she has not yet decided on a second choice candidate, saying that she is going to wait for more debates to hear other candidates’ platforms.

Nath did not explicitly share any names, but named top priorities: education, health care, and housing. He also said he’d rank candidates with “roots in the community.” Nath said he’s undecided on his fifth choice.

Ahmed was the only one who shared her candidate picks, saying, “I like to walk the walk.” She went on to disclose that Sharma will get one of her votes because of her detailed housing plan, Nath will also get a vote from Ahmed, who praised his work with New American Voters Association, and she also committed to voting for Jain because she supports taxing the rich. She didn’t name a fifth vote.

For the final question, which was submitted by a member of the audience, candidates were asked how they were educating voters on completing their ballots under the new system.

Gennaro, Nath, and Syed all identified reminding voters to vote for up to five different candidates as part of their education on ranked-choice voting in order to maximize the potential of the new voting system.

Sharma said her campaign volunteers have been taught how to educate voters on ranked-choice voting through a script and training sessions.

“We have literature in multiple languages explaining how ranked-choice voting works,” said Ahmed, who also pairs this education with reminders about her platform and endorsements, so that they will think of her on Election Day.

In addition to educational seminars, Jain also said that she has a sample ballot on her phone, which she uses to demonstrate for voters how the ballot will look and how to use it.

The forum on Thursday night, hosted by Chhaya CDC, India Home, Chinese-American Planning Committee (CPC NYC), Shetu, APA VOICE, and the MinKwon Center for Community Action, also began with an educational presentation on ranked-choice voting. After that, the candidates each had one minute to introduce themselves. The Q&A portion of the forum was divided into four rounds including questions from members of the organizations sponsoring the event; a “lightning round” requiring short answers; audience questions; and the candidates selecting an opponent of their choice to ask a question.

The questions posed to candidates touched on plans for social services, language accessibility, gentrification and displacement, land use, housing, tenants’ rights, senior care, the city budget, and more. The forum was moderated by Habib Rahman of TBN24, a Bangla language live television channel.

Although originally scheduled to appear, Gennaro cancelled an hour or so before the event, according to organizers. Habib called this news “disappointing” a few times throughout the forum, and said, “We’d like to thank all of the candidates who saw it important to come to the forum and speak to everybody who’s here.” Candidates Mujib Rahman and Michael Brown were also missing.

When asked how they would enhance professional development programs geared toward immigrant and undocumented communities, all of the candidates agreed that language accessibility was a crucial aspect of this and proposed different strategies.

Syed suggested coordinating with the Small Business Administration to “connect with employers to see what needs they have, and we train and provide funding simultaneously.” Additionally, Syed proposed “investing in trade schools,” as well as educating those with foreign degrees about the existing system for certificate conversion.

On language accessibility, Nath took a few shots at Gennaro, saying, “Today, we have somebody who is running for this seat who voted against a language assistance program. Apparently, he’s not even on this panel. Maybe I’m missing him.” If elected to the City Council, Nath said, “I want to specifically work with CUNY and SUNY and create a center at York College and Queens College” that would help immigrants with their certifications.

Jain emphasized funding, citing her experience as a Democratic district leader and a delegate for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the most recent presidential election. “I know how much money is sitting there for our adult education program. I want to bring that money to my district. I want to bring the fair share to my community,” she said.

Sharma said she would create a task force of community leaders to strategize “innovative solutions” that are “on par with what’s happening in the community,” including making sure that “language accessibility is part of [job training].”

Ahmed said her personal experience of providing translation for her immigrant parents has informed her understanding of the need for language justice, saying, “When you can't understand, you can't participate.” But the clock ran out before she proposed specific strategies.

When asked how they would assist first-time homebuyers, Ahmed, Nath, Syed, and Jain all agreed that basements should be legalized as separate dwelling units.

Ahmed went on to say, “And we need to work with state legislators to tax the rich and make sure there's funding to give a stipend to homeowners so that they're able to pay their mortgage.”

Nath emphasized his commitment to helping homeowners, saying, “I have not taken a single dime from developers,” which he criticized for artificially inflating prices. He added that taxes should be suspended for first-time homebuyers and that the process by which to secure loans for homes should be easier.

“There’s already a program that exists, which provides $40,000 for the first-time homebuyer,” began Jain, referencing the HomeFirst Down Payment Assistance Program. “It should be extended more, and there should be some more educational programs also to be funded by the City Council,” added Jain.

If elected, Sharma said that she would work with the state on property taxes, although she didn’t specify. She also proposed “creating a New York City public bank, where we can actually provide capital that goes to a more diverse group of people.” She identified loans at the “number one problem” for first-time homeowners.

“Since 2002, property taxes have increased almost 18%,” began Syed. “When I get to City Council, I’m pledging not to increase property taxes on one-to-three [family] homes.” She also emphasized the need for seminars on purchasing homes and spotting predatory lending.

On gentrification and displacement as a result of rezonings and real estate development, all candidates agreed that input from the community is vital.

Both Nath and Jain called for the creation of more affordable housing.

Sharma, Ahmed, and Soma said that racial impact studies, as suggested by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and some City Council members, should be required on major rezoning proposals. In addition to racial impact reports, Soma emphasized the need for environmental impact statements. Sharma and Syed also criticized what they say is a one-size-fits-all approach of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program. “AMI, the average median income is the same across the board” when it should vary neighborhood by neighborhood, said Sharma.

Ahmed called for reforming the entire land use review process overall, saying, “I would not vote for any rezoning under our current ULURP process,” which she said “prioritizes developers over our community.”

On supporting tenants, Sharma said she would start with holding “problematic landlords” accountable by “taking them to court,” referring to Zara Realty, a real estate company that faced a lawsuit from New York Attorney General Letitia James over violations of rent stabilization and tenant harassment laws.

Syed, who has represented tenants against Zara Realty, said she would cancel rent “for those tenants who are not able to pay rent.” On this point, Nath disagreed, saying, “If we do that, that will hurt some of our small landlords.”

“What I will do is work to continue the moratorium on evictions during the pandemic by working with state legislators, expand ‘right to a lawyer’ for all renters in housing court, encourage the creation of more tenant unions…and expand community land trusts to help working class families afford a home,” said Ahmed.

On senior care, Sharma proposed distributing the COVID-19 vaccine via a mobile van, and Nath agreed, saying, “We need to bring the vaccine into the local community.” Syed promised using $750,000 in discretionary funds allotted to City Council District 24 to fund senior centers. Ahmed concurred, adding, “We also need adult daycare centers to provide help for our seniors, whether it's physical therapy, mental health support.” Jain, who serves as chair of the community advisory board of India Home, cited her experience in the role, including mental health counseling for seniors, providing hot meals, and vocational skills programs.

When asked how they would approach the city budget in the midst of the fiscal crisis caused by the pandemic, Sharma, Ahmed, and Jain called for new revenue streams. Sharma and Ahmed suggested redirecting a portion of the NYPD’s budget toward social services, with Ahmed pointing out, “The city spent $230 million in 2018 alone on lawsuits against the NYPD for misconduct. It's clear that we need to stop pumping billions into a policing system that's broken and plagued with lawsuits and human rights violations.” Ahmed and Jaim also proposed taxing billionaires. Additionally, Ahmed said she would “work with state legislators to pass marijuana legalization,” “take away tax abatements so corporate landlords can’t avoid taxes,” and “make sure New York City collects fines for permit violations and tax commercial property warehouses.”

While Sharma said that the city needs “to stop relying on federal funding,” Syed said that she would “push the Biden administration to provide state funding.” She also added, “We need to look at the entire city budget and make the appropriate cuts,” but she promised those cuts would not impact essential social services, such as senior care, mental health services, and support for the unhoused.

“What I'm proposing is suspending the commercial rent tax for at least one year, and giving a grant to the small business owner, so they can open the business and create jobs,” said Nath. He also said he was “supportive of Amazon” building a massive new campus in Long Island City, but in lieu of that, “We need to make sure we invite companies who will create jobs that are going to help the middle-class American. Of course, they have to be union jobs.”

During the lightning round, candidates were unanimous in their support of “people over profit,” Medicare for all, affordable housing, ranked-choice voting, and working-class communities. When asked to choose between investment in community programs and services or investment in law enforcement, most candidates chose the former, except Syed, who said she supported both.

During the final round, in which candidates asked another candidate of their choice one question, Sharma kicked things off, asking Nath for his stance on the Black Lives Matter movement. To this, he said he was supportive. “We cannot end [systemic racism] by electing the same people year after year who violate term limits, who just treat politics as a career,” he said, seemingly referring to former City Council member Gennaro, who served three terms and is now running for his old seat in District 24. (The current law limits officeholders to two concurrent terms, but there is nothing barring Gennaro from running again. He was among those who approved a term-limits extension in 2009 that allowed Mayor Bloomberg and City Council members like himself the possibility of an additional term.)“By electing one of us, we can bring diversity and inclusion to the City Council. That's how we end systemic racism in this country,” Nath said.

Syed asked Jain how she thought white supremacy affected immigrant communities, to which Jain replied, “This is a democratic country. What happened in Washington, that should not have happened.” She added, “Of course it affected our immigrant community,” highlighting immigrant concern over safety.

Next, Ahmed asked Nath what his favorite Bangladeshi restaurant was on Hillside Avenue, and he answered, “Sagar Chinese.”

When Nath asked Ahmed if she would pledge to not work with candidates “who violated the term limit,” seemingly another reference to Genarro, Ahmed said, “I absolutely support term limits and would not want to work with anybody who's exploiting a loophole.”

For the last question of the forum, Jain asked Syed what she would do differently from the previous Council member, Lancman, for immigrant communities. Syed said, “We need to equitably distribute discretionary funds into communities that really need them.”

by Allison Smith for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Queens Council District Set to Hold City's First Ranked-Choice Election Sun, 17 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000
A Trumpian Push to Overturn the Will of New York City Voters voters kid polls

Voters having their say (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

While much of the nation is focused on Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the will of the voters in the presidential election through court challenges, delays, and proposed do-overs, a small group of politicians is seeking to do something similar in New York City.

At the beginning of 2019, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson established a Charter Revision Commission consisting of appointees of the Mayor, the Speaker, the Comptroller, the Public Advocate, and all the Borough Presidents. That Commission voted 13-2 to recommend, among other proposals, a new system of voting in city party primaries and special elections, called Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV). Only the Staten Island Borough President’s appointee and one of the Speaker’s four appointees voted against the proposal. RCV was then approved by almost 75% of those voting in the November 2019 municipal election and is now law in New York City, applicable to all City Council, Borough President, and city-wide primary and special elections. It’s set to take effect in 2021 when New Yorkers will elect a new roster of city government officials, including a new Mayor.

This is the way RCV works: voters choose up to five candidates running in a given race in their order of preference. If a candidate receives more than 50% of the first place votes, that candidate wins. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the one with the lowest number of first place votes is eliminated and that candidate’s votes are distributed to the second place choices of their voters. If no candidate still receives more than 50% of the votes, the remaining candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and their votes allocated to their voters’ second-place choices, and so on until a candidate receives a majority of the votes.

RCV is increasingly employed in municipal and state elections around the country because the method has many advantages. It avoids costly runoff elections and assures that a candidate has significant support among a majority of voters. With the city providing an 8-1 match for certain campaign funds, hundreds of candidates are competing in City Council primaries and special elections this coming year. In a crowded race, absent RCV, a special interest-backed City Council candidate could win with less than 10% of the vote and without truly representing the interests of district residents. 

At a time when our city faces daunting financial, social equity, policing, and economic recovery challenges, we can ill afford to have elected officials who do not broadly reflect the sentiments of their constituents. We need city-wide, borough-wide, and City Council representatives who can work together to heal the city as we come out of this destructive pandemic that has wreaked disproportionate havoc on our most vulnerable residents, small businesses, and much more. 

Ranked-choice voting makes this possible. Candidates will not only have to appeal to their core voters,  but also to a larger audience in order to attract second, third, fourth, and fifth preferences because, in a large field, no candidate is likely to garner 50% of the first-choice votes. Not only will this produce more civilized and democratic campaigns, but may also produce better ideas that can inform city governance beginning in 2022.

And, yet, some are now belatedly seeking to overturn or delay RCV. Are they motivated by the public or their own self-interest? Some opponents argue that voters of color won’t understand RCV and will leave their second through fifth choices blank. Huh? Most studies have shown that RCV actually benefits candidates of color. In San Francisco, which just recently implemented the system, London Breed, a Black woman, was elected Mayor, thanks in part to RCV.  

Others say that the New York City Board of Elections is not prepared to implement the system, despite assurances otherwise from the Board’s Executive Director.  There are now reports that county political party organizations, which appoint the BOE’s Commissioners, are attempting to put pressure on their appointees to get the Board to propose a delay. And, there has been an attempt to get the City Council to somehow reverse the recently-approved City Charter change incorporating RCV based on public approval last year. Some opponents have sought relief from the courts. The State Supreme Court recently denied a request for a restraining order to prevent RCV from being implemented in the special election to be held on February 2 in Queens for a City Council seat, which will be RCV’s first implementation in New York City.  

Do these audacious, last-minute efforts to overturn the will of the voters sound somewhat like what we are seeing coming out of the White House?

Sadly, as with Donald Trump, these efforts are not expected to abate. However, as Justice Louis Brandeis said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” If the public fully understands the mechanics of ranked-choice voting and its advantages, it will be effectively implemented.  The responsibility for educating the public rests with the city’s Campaign Finance Board, which says it is fully prepared to launch an education campaign.  With the first Special Election scheduled in six weeks, a major educational campaign is already underway in that district, thanks to the efforts of Common Cause NY.

With two more special City Council elections coming in March and others to follow, the time to launch a citywide campaign is now. Civic organizations should augment the public education effort with their own campaigns, as they did with the successful effort to get New Yorkers to participate in the 2020 Census.

The main event will come in June when we will have primary elections for all city-wide, borough-wide, and City Council races. By then voters should be fully knowledgeable as to how the new system works and we are confident that it will lead to more democratic and healthy campaigns, more pleased voters and empowered elected officials, and a new city government that can work together for the benefit of all its residents.

Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from through 2008 through 2018, held a number of other roles in and out of government, and is now a columnist for Gotham Gazette. Carl Weisbrod has held many roles in and out of city government, was a member of the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission, and is now a senior advisor at HR&A.

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A Trumpian Push to Overturn the Will of New York City Voters Mon, 28 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Ranked-Choice Voting is Not 'Political Gentrification,' It’s Opportunity voting nyc kids parents

Voting in New York City (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

New York City, just like the nation, has been teetering at a crossroads. We’ve been utterly battered by the pandemic and ensuing economic depression. And much like the nation, we’ve been saddled with a do-nothing leader who has lionized the NYPD instead of holding them accountable. January 1, 2022 can’t come soon enough. Never has it been more important for every single voice to be heard.

Fortunately, New Yorkers will have a new way to vote next year which puts power back in the hands of the people, where it belongs. Ranked-choice voting (RCV) gives voters the option to rank their candidates in order of preference instead of picking just one. The system, which applies to special and party primary elections, has many positives, and was overwhelmingly approved by city voters in a 2019 referendum. In some instances, if your first choice is eliminated, the vote transfers to your second choice. Your vote matters more and candidates will need to appeal to more voters, just in time for the most consequential local election cycle in recent history.

However, before we’ve even had a chance to put the hellscape that was the 2020 election cycle to bed, some political leaders are trying to attack ranked-choice voting and delay, or even cancel, implementation. Attacks frame RCV as an act of “political gentrification.” It’s a popular rallying cry from the political establishment to use against anyone trying to address the extreme consolidation of power that exists in this city and state. It is an effective and particularly noxious term of art that accuses any political dissent or newcomer of being a gentrifier who strips power away from Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities and their elected officials.

First things first. As a Black organizer, who participated with other BIPOC leaders to get RCV passed, I find this line of attack frustrating, but not surprising. It’s the same tactic used to discredit BIPOC organizers who pushed to defund the police in the city budget and better fund our communities, and also the coalition of groups pushing to hold the local Democratic Party accountable.

It erases BIPOC activists from their organizing work within marginalized communities who themselves are tired of inaction, and tired of political leadership intent on keeping our policies stuck in the past. All of which leaves working people behind and indebted to the same political leaders who have sold out their communities to get a seat at “their” table.

Second, this attack is actually not true. Ongoing research shows, as recently as 2020, that RCV has made it easier for BIPOC and women to run and win across the country, and in some cases, it has helped candidates of color running in majority white districts. The data is there. It’s why I’m not worried about running with other BIPOC candidates in a majority white district, nor am I fretting about vote splitting.

As a Black candidate in a predominately white district, I sometimes get told that “I don’t have a base,” as if my race dictates who will vote for me. I want to believe that a Black man in 2020, who has personally been a victim of police violence in his life, can run for office and win in this district. I want BIPOC candidates to feel they can run and win in a predominantly white district and not be told they don’t belong. I believe RCV helps make that possible.

In an ideal world, the local campaigns we run would involve trying to connect to many different communities within a district. In the 39th City Council District in Brooklyn, where I’m running in next year’s election, people assume the district only consists of owners of brownstone apartments. Living here, I know for a fact that there is a diverse community of working class folks, people struggling to make rent and stay above water as we all navigate multiple crises at once. With RCV, suddenly every conversation has more electoral value, and in turn, communities that are often overlooked have more direct impact and value to candidates. This can only be a good thing, pushing candidates to talk to as many voters as possible.

Do we need more city resources to educate folks about ranked-choice voting? Absolutely. But this should not cause us to delay or undermine a good reform that has been proven to work in other parts of this country and around the world. Community groups are already doing the work and ramping up now that the presidential election is mostly in the rear view. Instead of complaining, local electeds and political leaders should put their energy toward educating their constituents instead of defying the will of the voters.

In a country where we are still stuck with the Electoral College, and many formerly incarcerated folks are barred from voting because of a racist legacy of voter suppression, it’s taken an incredible amount of energy to pass really small reforms like early voting and ranked-choice voting. New York City has no excuse to not try and lead in bringing our elections into the modern era with a reform like RCV.

Like it or not ranked-choice voting is here to stay, and it’s time to get on board or get out of the way.

Brandon West is running for City Council in District 39 in Brooklyn. On Twitter @brandonwestnyc.

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Ranked-Choice Voting is Not 'Political Gentrification,' It’s Opportunity Sun, 06 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Ranked-Choice Voting is Coming; NYC Must Immediately Fund a Public Education Campaign early voting pres

Voters at work (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The combination of early voting, vote-by-mail, and the desire to vote out Donald Trump made 2020 a huge year for voting in New York City. Despite long lines, when voters are given the right resources and awareness, we can raise the level of participation.  

As we turn towards 2021, the next chapter for voting in New York City will be the implementation of ranked-choice voting (RCV) for special and party primary elections for city government positions. If properly implemented, it will further improve our electoral process. But it’s an open question whether our government is up to the task of strong implementation, including extensive voter education, and the lack of effort and funding so far does not inspire confidence.

Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank candidates based on their preferences, from choosing one up to five candidates in order. If a single candidate does not reach 50% of first-place votes, the last place candidate is eliminated and their votes are reallocated to the remaining candidates based on those voters’ second choices, with candidate elimination and vote reallocation continuing until a candidate hits 50%. 

When properly implemented, ranked-choice voting is good for our democracy and our city:

It is a more accurate representation of the electorate and a fairer process.

It empowers voters to make more candidate preferences heard.

It forces campaigns to build broad coalitions -- to focus on winning over a majority of voters in their districts.

It decreases negative campaigning.

Ranked-choice voting will be a major change in how city officials are elected, yet most voters are unaware of what’s coming or how RCV will work. City government, having adopted this new system through a charter revision commission and voter referendum, has a responsibility to educate voters or risk disenfranchising large swaths of voters who are confused by the process. With the first ranked-choice election scheduled for a special election that will culminate on February 2 in Queens’ City Council District 24, a seat recently vacated by Rory Lancman, we cannot allow any more delays in launching a major public education campaign to ensure all voters understand ranked-choice voting. 

After that special election, we will quickly have at least three more special City Council elections, followed by the June citywide primaries for Mayor, Comptroller, Public Advocate, Borough Presidents, and the entire City Council. With such a significant change in how voters will elect these officials, there is no time to waste.

Similar to the 2020 Census efforts, it is critical that the city immediately funds a public education campaign on ranked-choice voting. From sending mailings to voters, to partnering with local organizations and influencers to get the word out, to running television ads, to utilizing digital advertising, the city should be meeting voters where they are. Further, this outreach must be conducted in multiple languages so that voters for whom English is a second language are not left out of the civic process, as they too often are. We must be careful to include historically-disenfranchised communities of color in every part of our electoral process as we transition into ranked-choice elections.

Voting is the most sacred right in our country and a cornerstone of our democracy. With Republicans no longer able to block voting reforms in Albany, our laws are finally catching up with more progressive states and making voting easier. But failure to invest in civic education  following such a major change creates an obstacle to reform, unintentionally suppressing votes.  The implementation and funding of a ranked-choice voting education program is New York City’s opportunity to ensure the success of our new voting system, but only if we step up and take action right now.

Josué Pierre is a candidate for City Council in the 40th District, in Brooklyn. On Twitter @CitizenPierre.

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Ranked-Choice Voting is Coming; NYC Must Immediately Fund a Public Education Campaign Thu, 03 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
'One For The History Books': Race to Replace City Council Member Donovan Richards Starts to Take Shape in Southeast Queens 1 over 200 units

City Council Member Donovan Richards (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

Donovan Richards’ likely ascension to become the next Queens Borough President at the start of 2021 would trigger a special election to replace him in the City Council in the 31st District in Southeast Queens. With several candidates already in the race to replace Richards -- a Democrat who is term-limited out of his current position at the end of 2021 anyway -- and additional potential candidates circling, the likely special election is already shaping up to be one of the most contentious City Council races of next year.

The entire 51-seat Council will be on the ballot, along with the rest of city government, through the 2021 June primaries and fall general election, but several special Council elections, including in the 31st District, are likely for earlier in the new year. Bronx Council Members Ritchie Torres and Andrew Cohen are both also likely to win new positions, creating vacancies at the start of the year that could be filled via special election in late February or March -- elections that are slated to be the first city use of ranked-choice voting, which will apply to special and party primary races beginning in 2021.

The 31st Council District includes portions of Laurelton, Rosedale, Far Rockaway, the Rockaways, South Ozone Park, and Springfield Gardens. It is split between “mainland” Southeast Queens neighborhoods like Laurelton and Rosedale, and the Rockaways, which are somewhat separated largely by John F. Kennedy Airport (also one of the district’s main employers) and Jamaica Bay. According to Census data, the district is 68% Black, 16% Hispanic, and 11% white.

The “mainland” portion of the district consists predominantly of older and Black residents. In one neighborhood, Laurelton, which is 90% Black, the percentage of owner-occupied housing units is 70% and the median household income is $87,780. The Rockaways portion of the district has a higher percentage of white residents, includes a mix of younger people, and also a significant Orthodox Jewish community.

Southeast Queens has garnered a reputation in recent years as being a stronghold for the Queens County Democratic Party, in part because the area is home to the new county party chair, Rep. Gregory Meeks, and provided the strongest base of support for county party-backed Melinda Katz in her 2019 Queens District Attorney primary against public defender Tiffany Caban, now a Council candidate herself in Western Queens, and for Richards among a crowded field in this year’s Borough President race, which only occurred because of Katz’s shift to the DA position.

While the area has supported such county-backed figures with strong ties to the political establishment, its voters have also elected progressive State Senator James Sanders Jr. and, this year, community activist Khaleel Anderson, who won decisively in a primary for State Assembly against a county-backed opponent. But it’s not always as simple as county party-backed establishment figures versus progressives within the Democratic Party: Richards has a progressive track record, and recently voted against this year’s city budget because he believed it did not go far enough in defunding the NYPD’s budget.

The 31st Council District in some ways represents why ranked-choice voting was seen as desirable for Democratic primaries and special elections. In a 2013 special election, Richards barely won his Council seat, by a margin of just 70 votes, over Pesach Osina, an Orthodox Jewish candidate, with both garnering around 29% of the vote. Richards was among six Black candidates vying for the seat, all of whom together earned roughly 70% of the vote combined, while the lone non-Black candidate nearly won the race with less than half their total.

Now, as the likely special election approaches, Osina is back, though among a different field and with the new ranked-choice system in place.

Candidates and Potential Candidates
With several candidates already running or considering runs, this change could prove especially pivotal to the ultimate outcome of the race. Six people have either entered the race or expressed interest in doing so in some form, including Manuel Silva, Richards’ chief of staff; Franck Joseph, Deputy Commissioner for the City’s Human Rights Commission; Latanya Collins, a 2017 candidate for the seat; Monique Charlton, a consultant for the Department of Education; Latoya Benjamin, director of economic development in State Senator Sanders' office; Osina, who previously worked in the New York City Comptroller’s office; and Jazmine Outlaw, an activist with the Rockaway Youth Task Force.

Gotham Gazette spoke with Silva, Joseph, Benjamin, Charlton, and Outlaw, while Osina has not responded to an interview request and Collins was unreachable. Silva, Collins, Charlton, and Benjamin are currently in the race, while Osina and Outlaw have not yet officially entered.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Joseph said “my focus right now is to help New Yorkers as I fulfill my duties at my agency.” He indicated that, while he does have a campaign account open, he is not actively campaigning at the moment and is still undecided as to whether he will enter the race.

One person familiar with the district said that they thought Assemblymember Alicia Hyndman, whose 29th Assembly District overlaps with the 31st City Council District in Laurelton and Rosedale, could enter the race. Hyndman’s office declined an interview request. If she were to enter the race, Hyndman would immediately be a frontrunner, if not the clear favorite, given success rates for state legislators moving to the City Council and vice versa.

Four candidates had open campaign accounts at the time of the last filing deadline on July 11. Osina had $10,403 in cash-on-hand; Silva had $7,100; Benjamin had $3,219; and Joseph had $3,925. Osina led the candidates with 169 donors to Silva’s 127, while Benjamin had 30. The other candidates and potential candidates did not have open campaign accounts with the city Campaign Finance Board at the time of the last filing deadline.

A Unique District
“This is a very unique district. It has extremes of wealth and poverty. And then there's a geographic difference between the Rockaways and the mainland, if you will,” said Sanders Jr., the state senator who preceded Richards in representing the 31st Council District. As Sanders notes, Laurelton is one of the few neighborhoods in the country where Black income surpasses white income. At the same time, there are seven NYCHA public housing developments in the Rockaways alone.

“The Black community in Southeast Queens is politically liberal, but socially moderate,” said Sanders, who attributes his electoral success as “an unabashed progressive” to his ability to deliver effective constituent services.

“This is going to be a fascinating race,” Sanders said. “This is going to be one for the history books.”

Khaleel Anderson surprised many by winning the June Democratic primary for the 31st Assembly District (which overlaps significantly with 31st Council District). “It should’ve been covered like every other race,” he said, and “I was surprised” it was not.

“We’re probably the farthest away from Manhattan possible,” Silva said, when asked about the lack of attention races in the area receive.

“Southeast Queens is more open-minded than folks give us credit for,” Anderson said, when asked about the area’s reputation as of late as a political-establishment stronghold. “Southeast Queens definitely can be and is a bastion of new ideas and ambition, but they love to see folks who have fought the fight alongside them.”

“Progressives have been running and they’ve been winning, but [the Queens Democratic Party] is still in denial that we exist,” said Milan Taylor, the CEO of the Rockaway Youth Task Force, noting Anderson’s recent victory. “It’s like they’re trying to wish it away. To a certain extent, this is a changing of the guard. These candidates are young. They’re literally the future of Southeast Queens and of our city.”

Manuel Silva
Like some other chiefs of staff to term-limited City Council members, Silva is running for his boss’ current job. However, unlike counterparts Erik Bottcher (Corey Johnson, CD-3) and Nicholas Roloson (Costa Constantinides, CD-22), Silva does not currently have his boss’ endorsement. He identifies himself as a “100% hardcore progressive” and said he would be seeking the Working Families Party’s backing.

“City Council is probably the most important seat in local politics,” Silva said, when asked why he had decided to run. He pointed to flooding, budgetary issues, and reforming public safety as important issues for the local community. “We need leaders who are going to make bold decisions and push our city into the 21st century.”

“We need to demilitarize the NYPD and look at our public safety system in general,” said Silva, who said he supported reallocations of at least $1 billion away from the NYPD budget but “I just wouldn’t use that terminology,” referring to the “defund NYPD” slogan.

“I want to create programs around affordable home-ownership,” Silva told Gotham Gazette, while also expressing his support for affordable housing throughout the city, pointing to his work with Council Member Richards as something he would want to replicate.

Jazmine Outlaw
In addition to her work with the Rockaway Youth Task Force, Outlaw has been president of the 101st Precinct Council and is an EMT. “I’ve been doing this since I was 17 and it just snowballed from there,” Outlaw said, of her organizing background.

“There’s a difference between a career politician who’s worked for a senator and then people who’ve built things from the ground up and understand the community’s needs,” Outlaw said, when asked why she would run for Council.“I think we need more of those people stepping up and holding a seat at the table.”

“Things were wrong in our community and our voices weren’t being heard, from a youth standpoint,” Outlaw said, about why she joined RYTF, at which Anderson also grew his organizing chops. Outlaw said ending the school-to-prison pipeline and public safety are among her top priorities, pointing to her work on her local police precinct council.

“It’s really about police officers and the police department not taking the time to learn about our communities,” Outlaw said. “At the place we are now, we really need to take a different look at what we think of as community safety. I know for a fact that our community members don’t think of the police as a means of safety.” She said mental health services, youth programming, and affordable housing are necessary for public safety; and, she supports defunding the NYPD by at least $1 billion out of its roughly $6 billion annual operating budget.

“We need to focus on community-based alternatives to police and having a restorative-based approach,” Outlaw said. “A lot of the time police officers are band-aids to community problems and don’t deal with the root causes.”

“We need to prioritize making sure that health care is accessible for all. There needs to be a major shift in making sure that communities of color are getting the services they need,” Outlaw said, noting that the Rockaways were among the hardest-hit communities in New York City during the pandemic.

“There’s a progressive movement within Southeast Queens,” she said, noting this year’s Black Lives Matter protests. “I think we need somebody who sees those issues and is ready to bring lasting change. This is something that is possible, despite what naysayers may say.”

Latoya Benjamin
Benjamin, who serves as the director of economic development in State Senator Sanders’ office, said she’s running because the Council has a more direct role in economic development projects than the State Legislature. “I want to advocate for the changes in development I want to see in the community,” she said in an interview.

Benjamin points to the effects of COVID-19 as the top issue facing the local community, noting that one of the first coronavirus cases in New York City emerged in Far Rockaway and that “A lot of the leadership positions in our community are our elders and they’re no longer here.

“Covid further exposed the disparities that take place within our communities,” said Benjamin, who said she’d focus on bringing more public health resources to the local community.

“I’m a native, born and raised here,” Benjamin said, arguing that her experiences make her uniquely qualified to bring jobs and public resources back to the district. She diagnosed the failure of the Amazon ‘HQ2’ deal (which Richards supported) to Amazon “failing to do community outreach,” contrasting it to the recent expansion of John F. Kennedy Airport, where “The public and private sector worked hand-in-hand to get the local community’s support.”

Benjamin said her criteria for supporting new developments in the land use process would be “If the development meets the needs of the local community,” particularly noting that the local district has a deficit of health-care facilities.

On public safety, Benjamin said, “I support reevaluating the entire system” and “I believe that there are other ways to improve police-community relations.” While she supports reallocating resources away from police programs “that aren’t really useful,” she said, “I don’t think the blanket statement of ‘defunding the police’ is going to solve that.”

Monique Charlton
“I’m a part of a demographic that is underrepresented in the City Council,” Charlton said. “I’m a Black woman, a mother of a child under 18, and I’m running to represent a voice that’s not frequently heard.”

“I do think that with some of the decision-making in our legislative body, it’s not necessarily thoughtful or demonstrating concern for the family. Putting family people, specifically mothers, into a body that has been failing mothers will definitely make a difference,” Charlton said.

She lists education, health (particularly women’s health), housing, and jobs as her top issues. One of her focus areas if elected to the City Council would be “Ensuring that hospitals and health institutions see that Black mothers and all expectant mothers get the care they deserve.” She proposes that “The city assist new moms four months post-birth.” Details of this plan would be forthcoming, Charlton said.

“I see the shortcomings of the schools, particularly when it comes to funding,” Charlton said. She is also advocating remerging schools that were formerly divided, saying “It worked for a while but now with several changes that have occurred it’s time to bring schools back together.” She believes this will help with funding issues.

Charlton praised Council Member Richards’ land use policies, saying, “I think it’s important that the community be involved in the decision-making and how it affects our families.”

On public safety, Charlton said, “I would agree that we should reallocate some of [the NYPD’s] money to social services,” such as moving mental health crisis responses away from the police department.

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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'One For The History Books': Race to Replace City Council Member Donovan Richards Starts to Take Shape in Southeast Queens Mon, 28 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New Machines May Help With Early Voting But Advocates Say They Could Undermine Ranked-Choice Voting 30787897328 6a3c4da1ba c

Ranked-choice voting will be implemented for the first time next year (Michael Appleton/Mayor's office)

The New York State Board of Elections is continuing the process of certifying new voting machines sought by New York City elections administrators to improve the city's early voting system. But, while those machines could help the city take a step toward county-wide early voting centers – which many early voting supporters are pushing for – voting reform advocates say they may not be viable for ranked-choice voting, which will be implemented for the first time in the city next year. 

Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, lets a voter rank up to five candidates by preference, so that if no candidate wins a majority of votes, the last-place candidate's ballots are redistributed based on their voters' second choices, a process repeated until a winner emerges with 50% of the vote. RCV, which will only be in effect for special elections and party primary elections (not general elections) for New York City government positions, helps avoid costly and labor-intensive runoffs, which often see exceedinly low voter turnout. New Yorkers approved the change by ballot referendum last year to go into effect in 2021, when several City Council special elections as early as February could be the first RCV contests.

A document obtained by Gotham Gazette indicates the New York City Board of Elections believes its current voting machines will work for RCV in 2021, and is taking the necessary steps to upgrade their software. However, one leader of the State Board of Elections, which has to approve technology used by local boards, says no attempt to certify new software has been made.

In a report sent to Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council on July 1, the BOE said that as early as June 2019, the board's voting machine vendor, Election Systems & Software, confirmed that "the current hardware and firmware utilized to conduct elections in the City of New York and as certified by the New York State Board of Elections 'has the ability to layout a ballot that will accommodate RCV.'" New York City's current machines, the DS200 optical scanners, are designed to receive a handmarked paper ballot, while the new machines, Express Vote XL, are combined voting-and-tabulation machines that use a touch screen and have greater memory to store multiple ballot designs.

The BOE's executive director, Michael Ryan, came under criticism in 2018 for his affiliation with ES&S, particularly his undisclosed participation in an advisory board of the company, which paid for Ryan to take trips to conferences around the United States. Ryan has denied any conflicts of interest with ES&S and stepped down from the advisory board after it was first reported by NY1.

In March 2019, in a letter to the State BOE, reported again by NY1, Ryan asked to be able to use the new Express Vote XL machine from ES&S before it had been certified for use, but the request was denied. Ryan said the new machine, with its great memory capacity, could store more ballot styles and thus accommodate voters from a wider swath of election districts – a necessary hurdle to overcome if the city is going to set up county-wide early voting centers sought by advocates.

When it looked like the Express Vote XL was nearing certification by the State Board in January, good government groups and elected officials raised alarms about its history of inaccuracy, including an election in Pennsylvania where the machines failed to count 26,000 votes. Critics said the machines would also be costly and could damage confidence in the new RCV system during its first year if they failed.

"The ExpressVote XL has never been used in a Ranked Choice Voting election," read a January letter from good government group Common Cause NY and current and former public officials, including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and former CCRB Chair and Counsel to Mayor de Blasio, Maya Wiley, who is exploring a run for mayor in 2021. "The largest New York City election cycle in recent history, with wide open races for Mayor, Comptroller, four Borough Presidents, and 35 City Council seats, is no place for a trial run with a machine that has failed in other jurisdictions."

A spokesperson for ES&S said the Express Vote XL is compatible with RCV without a software upgrade and has a good track record.

With the latest confirmation that the current machines can work with a software update, advocates are enjoying a moment of relief. "This is what we have said all along that New York City has the voting machines it needs to implement ranked-choice voting in 2021, which is great news," Common Cause's deputy director, Sarah Goff, told Gotham Gazette. "That means that there will be no additional costs to the taxpayer in this regard."

The city BOE can get the required tabulation software upgrade from ES&S or through the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, she said ("Both are great options"), "and that is the only infrastructure upgrade that we'll need to scan, count, and tabulate votes in New York City."

The RCV report states that the city BOE will use vendor-provided software and "has communicated with the State Board for a determination whether State Board vendor approval and/or certification of software is required." But Douglas Kellner, the Democratic co-chair of the State Board, denied his agency had received any such communication. "If the DS200 requires a software update that requires certification and as far as I know that software update has not been submitted to the state board for certification or for a determination that it's not subject to certification," Kellner said by phone, referring to the current machines used by the city board.

The New York City Board of Elections did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

While acknowledging the immense challenge of administering elections during a pandemic, advocates looking ahead to ranked-choice voting in 2021 are worried that the city BOE is not moving quickly or deliberately enough to have the new format in place and ready for voters.

Meanwhile, the Express Vote XL certification process is still ongoing. "There have been some issues that arose during the testing process and we're still at least a couple of months away from a final certification report, assuming that there are no new issues," Kellner said.

At a certain point, the city may need to adopt new, larger machines if it is going to allow county-wide polling centers, which many of the same RCV advocates have been pushing for. But that does not need to happen all at once, especially before the RCV roll-out and while the current machines still work, advocates say.

"The DS200s, I believe have a shelf life of ten to fifteen years," Goff said, which she said was a few years away. "So some kind of new voting machine would need to happen."

"We've obviously taken the public position that it should definitely not be the ExpressVote XL," she added, "but that is a decision that will have to be made in the next few years."

Kellner said the city board can be "overly reliant on ES&S on how to address the problem."

"It is very easy to become dependent upon a vendor for solutions to issues that really should be addressed in-house, because it's easier," he said. "It's easier to just pick up the phone and say, 'Can you guys do it for us and we'll pay you for it?"

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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New Machines May Help With Early Voting But Advocates Say They Could Undermine Ranked-Choice Voting Mon, 31 Aug 2020 02:02:55 +0000
Board of Elections Presents Plan for 2021 Implementation of Ranked-Choice Voting 47220286761 129e1c6c19 c

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's office)

The New York City Board of Elections last week delivered a City Charter-mandated report to Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council on how it will implement a new voting method, known as ranked-choice voting (RCV), in the 2021 municipal elections, when all of city government will be on the ballot.

The report, which was submitted June 30 and obtained by Gotham Gazette, shows few procedural and operational changes to casting and counting ballots, possibly indicating a light lift for elections administrators ahead of the changes next year. But at least one government watchdog is concerned that the report's lack of detail and deadlines bodes poorly for the rollout of ranked-choice voting, especially given the difficulties voters experienced casting absentee ballots this summer.

"We recognize that the New York City Board of Elections is under a great deal of strain, but the lack of detail in this report is pretty concerning," said Tom Speaker, a spokesperson for the good government group Reinvent Albany, by phone. "The Charter calls for a plan for achieving the timely implementation of ranked choice voting, and in the report there is almost nothing about timing or about deadlines or about benchmarks."

Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, was approved by New York City voters last fall after being placed on the ballot by a Charter Revision Commission. The commission was created through legislation by the City Council and included appointees of the Council speaker, mayor, comptroller, public advocate, and the five borough presidents. The system of ranked-choice voting that was proposed to voters and approved is only for special elecitons and party primary elections, not general elections, and only applies to New York City government positions.

Modeled on systems used in a handful of cities throughout the United States, RCV allows voters to select more than one candidate, ranking them by order of preference. If no candidate has a majority of first-choice votes in the initial counting, the candidate with the fewest is eliminated and their ballots are redistributed according to the voter's second preference, a process that then continues until a winner crosses the 50% threshold.

Proponents of RCV say it will eliminate the need for expensive and poorly-attended runoff elections and would neutralize so-called "spoiler" candidates, those who have a low chance of winning but who sap votes from more viable candidates.

The 2021 elections for city office will include contests for mayor, comptroller, and public advocate, as well as borough presidents, and dozens of open City Council seats, all of which will be conducted by ranked-choice voting (again, only in special and primary elections, not the general election). With the first instance of ranked-choice voting likely taking place in a special election in as little as six months and an expected 500 candidates running in the primaries next year, Speaker says the lack of planning is especially concerning.

While the report notes that the layout of the ballot will change to reflect the ranking system, it details few other changes to the experience of voters and administrators on election day. Voters at their polling location will still be handed a ballot sheet to mark by hand and will feed them, completed, into the same scanning machines.

Though the existing ballot-scanning machines can accommodate RCV, they require software updates to run the counting algorithm. That may need approval from the State Board of Elections, which the report says the city board is seeking clarity on. Even if the software doesn't require state approval, the New York City Board of Elections must still go through a public procurement process in accordance with city rules. The report does not specify any timeline for making the determination or for procuring and installing the software.

The plan states that Unofficial Election Night Results will be available as they typically have been (with the exception of the 2020 primary and general elections, which saw an unprecedented number of absentee ballots due to the pandemic). The report makes no contingency plan for potential changes to the absentee rules that would make election night results impossible.

With the "amount of turmoil that can happen between now and whenever the first ranked choice voting is, it's just easy to see how a lot of these steps might actually never be taken," Speaker said, referring to potential waves of coronavirus in the future.

The board does not describe any adjustments to poll worker and ballot canvasser training or what instructions will be provided to voters at poll sites. The board says it plans to undertake a public education campaign "utilizing various traditional media and social media platforms to effectively communicate with voters," but doesn't say what the campaign will entail or what resources it has available to implement it.

"The Board will disseminate the details of the public education plan as same are available," the report reads.

Advocates and elected officials, including Brooklyn Borough President and mayoral-hopeful Eric Adams, have been pushing the city Board of Elections since February to undertake a serious public education effort to inform voters on the new voting method. At a February news conference in front of the board's office in Lower Manhattan, Adams, along with Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel of Brooklyn, and Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY, called for the city to allocate $10 million for the effort.

The board’s report was submitted just one day before the July 1 start of the current fiscal year, and it makes no mention of any budget needs. The city allocated $136 million to the New York City Board of Elections for fiscal year 2021.

Even with the most significant changes appearing relatively simple, like redesigning ballots and installing new software, Reinvent Albany’s Speaker says the devil will be in the details.

"While it might seem there's only a small number of steps required, it seems like the BOE could really benefit from more staff and more efforts dedicated to public information especially," he told Gotham Gazette, "because what we've seen in other municipalities who have adopted RCV, is that it fails the most when there is not a robust public education campaign around it."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Board of Elections Presents Plan for 2021 Implementation of Ranked-Choice Voting Fri, 28 Aug 2020 11:53:49 +0000
Board of Elections Misses Deadline for Planning Ranked-Choice Voting Implementation voting in new york city ballot RCV story

Ranked-choice voting is coming soon (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

The New York City Board of Elections missed a City Charter-mandated June 1 deadline to issue a report on how it will implement the new voter-approved ranked-choice voting system in 2021, advocates and elected officials said Friday.

At a press conference hosted by good government group Common Cause New York, Comptroller Scott Stringer and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said the report is essential to adequately prepare for the new voting format next year and called on the Board of Elections (BOE) to release it immediately.

Ranked-choice voting, which will only apply to party primary and special elections for city government positions, allows voters to select multiple names on the ballot in order of preference rather than voting for a single candidate. If no candidate initially receives more than 50% of the vote, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated and their ballots redistributed based on their voters’ second choices, and so on until one candidate has a majority.

Voters approved the measure in a referendum last November. It takes effect for elections beginning in 2021 and requires the BOE to submit a report to the Mayor and City Council Speaker "containing a plan for achieving timely implementation of ranked choice voting" by June 1 of this year.

Supporters of the reform say it will force candidates to try to appeal to a wider political base and eliminate the need for expensive run-off elections, which tend to have minimal turn out. But successful implementation will be challenging and significant voter education will be necessary, advocates and elected officials have repeatedly pointed out.

"The deadline is crucial in order to make sure that the Board can purchase the necessary upgrades to the existing voting machines for ranked-choice voting," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York.

New York City began using ballot-on-demand printers and electronic poll books on a large-scale as part of rolling out early voting last year. The technology purchased by city elections administrators is supposed to be compatible with a ranked-choice format but, along with optical ballot scanners, requires software upgrades that must be certified with the state elections board before 2021 elections.

That certification process usually takes around six months, Lerner said, and the first city elections of 2021 could be special elections early in the year, followed by the regularly-scheduled June primaries for dozens of seats across city government.

A spokesperson for the City Council confirmed it has not received a report. "The Council will not tolerate delayed implementation of ranked choice voting and we demand the BOE meet the deadlines every step of the way in this process," the spokesperson wrote in an email. The mayor's office did not respond to inquiries about the report.

Under the New York City Charter, if the board fails to submit the implementation report within 30 days of the deadline it will "create a rebuttable presumption that such board is declining to implement ranked choice voting as required by this section."

"Once again the barrier to democracy is our own board of elections because they dropped the ball again," said Stringer, who is running for mayor in 2021. "Someone should just get that report done now, so we don't have problems later on."

Next year will be the busiest city election cycle in at least eight years, with mayor, comptroller, four borough presidents, and dozens of City Council seats “open” due to term limits (meaning no incumbent is running). The public advocate, Queens borough president, and about 16 other Council seats are also up for election, though with incumbents likely running, and the city's Campaign Finance Board estimates roughly 500 candidates total will be seeking office in 2021.

There could be special elections called as early as March, depending on the outcome of ongoing 2020 races for Queens Borough President and Congressional District 15 in the Bronx, where current City Council members are frontrunners. A special election is called when an elected office is vacated mid-term.

Common Cause, along with Reinvent Albany, League of Women Voters of New York City, and Citizens Union, sent a letter Friday to BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan and his deputy, Dawn Sandow, urging them to release a report. "We acknowledge the additional burden of operating in this new environment, but as we've seen the NYC BOE adapt to the COVID crisis, we remain confident the Board is up to the task," the letter reads.

The BOE is frequently criticized for administrative blunders that lead to arduous experiences at the polls and in some cases disenfranchise voters. The risk increases when administrators are rolling out new and untried elements. An extreme example has been this month’s primaries, where pandemic-induced changes to the rules governing absentee voting meant an unprecedented number of voters sought the option. There have been widespread reports that many voters did not receive their ballots in the mail in time to cast them, as well as poll-site operation issues of the more perennial variety.

"There is no time to waste. We got to make sure that our candidates know the rules and that our voters are educated," Stringer said, noting that effort must begin with the implementation report.

"I know that we are in the middle of a cascade of crises," said Brewer, including the coronavirus pandemic, protests for racial justice, and a major economic downturn. "But equally important is voting and voting the way voters want to vote." The referendum establishing the new voting system was approved with nearly 75 percent of the vote but in an "off-year" election with relatively low turnout.

"I have to say to me it's frightening because what it says is, 'we are not ready,'" she said.

The BOE did not respond to requests for comment.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Board of Elections Misses Deadline for Planning Ranked-Choice Voting Implementation Fri, 26 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Key Details Emerge for How Ranked-Choice Voting Will Work in New York City primary voting chi bdb

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Though a new system for holding many city elections was overwhelmingly approved by voters last fall, new details about how ranked-choice voting will actually work continue to emerge.

Ranked-choice voting, which will apply to only special and primary elections for New York City government positions, allows voters to rank up to five candidates in order of preference. If no candidate hits a majority of votes, a system of vote redistribution based on second and possibly subsequent choices is executed, with ballots initially cast for the last-place candidate assigned to each of those voters’ second choices, and so on until a winner is crowned.

While several potential benefits, including the end to costly, low turnout run-off elections, helped lead to the passage of ranked-choice voting, concerns have been raised about educating voters on the new, complex system before its 2021 implementation.

Under ranked-choice voting, how the results are tabulated, when vote tallies are reported, and when unofficial winners are declared have implications for the way New Yorkers understand election results.

Newly evident details about the methodology for tabulating and reporting ranked-choice voting results in New York City are now surfacing, including areas in which the New York City Board of Elections has discretion. They come amid concerns over the recent debacle at the Iowa Democratic presidential primary caucuses and a nationwide call to remove chaos and misinformation from elections -- while New York City contests have seen their share of controversy and uncertainty.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting say it will encourage more civility in campaigning and require candidates to reach a larger base of support, with candidates hoping to be named either first or second choice on as many ballots as possible, while also eliminating the need for party primary run-offs. The 2019 Charter Revision Commission, created through City Council legislation, proposed amending the City Charter to establish ranked-choice voting (among over a dozen other proposals). Voters approved the amendment including ranked-choice voting with 73.6 percent support, while all the other proposals on a wide variety of topics also passed with similar degrees of support.

Jurisdictions using ranked-choice voting allow voters to rank candidates as ‘first choice,’ ‘second choice,’ ‘third choice,’ and sometimes more (the city will allow up to five, though voters can still just select their top choice for a position and leave it at that). If no candidate wins a majority of first choice votes upon the initial counting, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated and their votes are reassigned to the second choice candidate listed on each of those ballots. That process is then repeated as needed until a winner is declared.

Gotham Gazette has learned that, if no candidate hits a majority of votes and candidate elimination is triggered, under the law a winner will not be announced until all but two candidates have been eliminated and all ballots with other candidates listed first are redistributed among those top two finishers.

This differs from the way most jurisdictions using ranked-choice voting in the United States tabulate votes. According to the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, of the 15 jurisdictions that use ranked-choice voting to elect a single winner, all but two stop the counting and declare a victor as soon as any candidate reaches more than 50 percent of the vote.

“A close reading of the Charter shows that the 2019 Charter Revision Commission selected a far less common version of Ranked Choice Voting for New York City, and very few New Yorkers, including many legislators and advocates, realize that,” wrote Rachel Bloom, policy director at Citizens Union, a good government group, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

While falling into the minority of ranked-choice voting methods, experts say the city’s so-called “down to two” approach provides a fuller picture of the electorate’s position. They say it adds to the value of ranked-choice voting by showing a wider breadth of support for the winner in a crowded special or primary election.

“Running the count down to the final two gives you a better sense of a candidate's mandate and what coalitions they may have formed or have available to them as electeds,” wrote Christopher Hughes, the policy director and general counsel at the Resource Center, who has worked with governments and advocates throughout the country on adopting and implementing ranked-choice voting, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

A City Council source said that running the tabulation down to two is a transparency measure and will not affect which candidate ultimately wins.

But making vote tabulation more complicated, in any sense, could also have negative side effects in terms of informing voters.

At a press conference last week in Lower Manhattan and again Tuesday on WNYC radio, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a Democrat and likely 2021 mayoral contender, claimed election results will not be reported after polls close on the night of an election using ranked-choice voting. In almost all recent elections in New York City, unofficial results have been known and publicized the night of the election. Instead they may not be announced for days or may trickle-in in pieces, with the first round of counting published days before the final outcome is known -- or both.

“We are definitely not going to know on primary night in June of 2021 who the winner is. It’s going to take potentially days...You’re hearing it here, now, 17 months before the election,” Johnson said on WNYC.

He cited the length of time it will take to count votes, eliminate candidates if none reach a majority of highest rank votes on the initial count, and redistribute the votes as needed. 

But the true calculus is not as cut and dry and when results are announced depends on the discretion of election administrators, who have yet to publicly discuss how ranked-choice voting will be executed. Under New York State election law, the New York City Board of Elections, which administers elections in the five boroughs, must report unofficial election results on the final night of an election after polls close. But the City Charter amendment creating ranked-choice voting gives the city BOE discretion to decide whether to, on the night of a special or primary election, report just the first round of tabulation or the results of all rounds.

According to the City Council source, the BOE will ultimately have to make a rule about its approach to reporting. The board must issue a report in June on its plan for implementing RCV in 2021, but is not explicitly required to include a determination on the reporting method then.

A spokesperson for the city BOE said it was too early to say which approach the board would take and that staff would be meeting with voting technology vendors in March to discuss the options.

In a phone interview, Michael Ryan, the New York City Board of Elections executive director, said the nuances of ranked-choice voting mean a candidate elimination might not be triggered until after absentee and affidavit ballots are counted.

“The Speaker’s statement is correct. There are going to be contests, maybe not all of them, but there are going to be contests where the outcome will be an open question for a much longer period of time than we have become used to in the city of New York,” Ryan said.

“The Speaker’s prediction is based on the findings by the Charter Revision Commission,” wrote a Council spokesperson in an email. 

Unofficial election night results differ from the certified election results, which can come days or weeks after an election. In New York, election administrators have 13 days to declare official winners. To reach the official results, all votes including absentee and affidavit ballots have to be tabulated.

“In most RCV jurisdictions the election administrators have communicated to press/candidates/voters how and when results of the RCV count will be released,” Hughes wrote by email. “Most places tend to get unofficial round-by-round results out in the 24 hours after an election, but first-time implementations may take a bit longer as people work out the kinks in the process.”

The kinks, according to Hughes, are not necessarily a matter of technology. “The additional rounds of counting, if needed to determine who the final two candidates are [and] their vote shares, don't take much additional time because the software used to run the count is fairly efficient at this point,” he pointed out.

With the potential that first round tabulations can yield different vote leaders than the final “down to two” count, partial or piece-meal reporting could confuse voters and diminish confidence in the final results. “We definitely won’t know that night, we may not know the next day, and people should understand that that night candidates are going to...stand at a lectern and say, ‘ra! ra!’ but not be able to say who actually won or not,” Johnson said Tuesday of election results and the nights of special or primary elections (which now come after a period of early voting in New York for each election).

The 2021 election cycle, which will be the city’s first using ranked-choice voting, will be incredibly busy, especially for the June Democratic primaries, with hundreds of candidates expected across races for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, the five borough presidents, and all 51 City Council seats. Many of those contests will be for “open seats” with no incumbent running, traditionally leading to more candidates in the running and increasing the likelihood that ranked-choice voting will involve more triggered candidate elimination, vote redistribution processes.

Along with clarity and planning from the city Board of Elections, elected officials and advocates are calling for an education campaign so that voters know how ranked-choice voting works, both from voting and vote-counting standpoints. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, also a Democrat and likely mayoral candidate, has already pledged to start holding educational workshops.

“Clarity is needed so we can begin a comprehensive voter education program in advance of the 2021 primary where RCV will go into effect.  RCV education is not only about how to vote but also how results are calculated. The last thing we want is voters not understanding why a certain candidate won,” Bloom wrote.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Key Details Emerge for How Ranked-Choice Voting Will Work in New York City Thu, 20 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Push Begins to Educate New Yorkers About Ranked-Choice Voting Ahead of 2021 Implementation eric adams wcbs

Eric Adams, Susan Lerner, and Alicka Ampry-Samuel, right (photo: @AlickaASamuel41)

A push is now underway to ensure voters are educated about the new ranked choice voting system New York City will be adopting for some elections starting in 2021, and it is being driven by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a top contender in the mayoral race where the new format will first be tested.

At a press conference Wednesday in front of New York City Board of Elections headquarters in Lower Manhattan, Adams, along with Brooklyn City Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel and Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, urged the mayor and City Council to include $10 million in the next city budget toward public education ahead of the implementation of ranked-choice voting, which was approved by voters this past November. He said the allocation would be offset by the money saved in costly run-off elections, which tend to have extremely low turnout and are obsolete in a system using ranked-choice voting, and should be geared to engaging historically disenfranchised groups.

Ranked-choice voting will be a “major shift” in how elections are run and “it’s imperative that we get it right,” Adams said of the new voting method where voters can select up to five candidates in order of preference during special and primary elections (but not general elections) beginning in 2021, and votes are reapportioned as needed until a winner hits 50%. “That is why we’re asking the City Council, the Speaker, as well as the Mayor of the City of New York, to allocate the necessary funds so that we can have the proper education on the ground.”

In addition to the call for city funding, Adams announced he would be holding forums at Brooklyn Borough Hall and is encouraging his fellow borough presidents to do the same in their boroughs. The speakers at the press conference also called attention to the city Board of Election’s effort to use a new paperless touch-screen voting machine, which they say is less accurate and secure than the current hybrid system, which election experts consider a “gold standard.”

The push comes amid an unfolding fiasco in the Iowa Democratic caucuses, as a newly adopted and undertested app-based reporting mechanism has failed to report the full results of the state’s voting Monday. “The Iowa debacle should be a wake-up call for how we integrate new technologies into our election systems,” Adams said in a press release Wednesday.

Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rate candidates in order of preference rather than having to cast a vote for just one, at least for New York City special and primary elections beginning in 2021. If no candidate wins a majority of votes on the first counting, the last place candidate is eliminated and their ballots are redistributed to the remaining candidates based on those voters’ second choices. The process of elimination and reapportionment continues until one candidate receives a majority of support.

Advocates say the system has a number of benefits in addition to eliminating the need for run-off elections, which currently occur after a primary election in the city when no candidate garners more than 40 percent of the vote. Ranked-choice voting reduces the risk of so-called “spoiler” candidates -- candidates who have no chance of winning but still take votes that could otherwise advantage a more viable candidate -- by not forcing voters to choose between their top choice and another alternative other than in ranking them. Supporters also say it forces candidates to adopt a broader message and appeal to voters outside their base, and that winners are ultimately indicative of more widespread support.

Ranked-choice was approved by voters last fall as part of a referendum to amend the City Charter. It came after a coalition of election reformers pushed the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, tasked with proposing amendments to voters based on public input and an analysis of the city’s primary governing document. Barring unforeseen special elections, which are called when an elected official steps down mid-term, the first races using ranked-choice voting in New York City will be the June 2021 primaries for mayor, other citywide and boroughwide positions, and the entire City Council. 

The implementation will come on the heels of a slew of election changes passed by state lawmakers in 2019, including early voting and electronic poll books, and primaries moved to June.

Adams and Ampry-Samuel, both Democrats, said the focus of educational outreach should be groups that have been politically marginalized in the past.

“We need to be proactive and invest now as a city in educating our most vulnerable communities and voters to avoid disastrous errors and potential disenfranchisement,” said Ampry-Samuel, who represents parts of Bed-Stuy, Brownsville, East Flatbush, and Crown Heights and will be up for reelection in 2021.

“Black voters have been loyal to the Democratic Party for decades. It is disrespectful and a failure to our communities when we neglect to prepare them for the changes. We are now introducing new technologies and systems that can also be confusing to our aging New Yorkers,” she said.

Asked whether she would be pushing legislation to support the effort to engage historically disenfranchised New Yorkers in conjunction with the push for funding, Ampry-Samuel said: “We are working with the Council now and our advocates to make sure that we have legislation in place to make sure that our voters are protected. But in addition to that, because right now we are in the budget season and we are negotiating that city funding, we are making sure we are putting enough funding -- $10 million -- in place to educate our voters.”

“This education must be on the ground,” and should occur through “door-to-door outreach, [at] train stops, in our school system,” and reaching “our new young people who are graduating from high school and will be voting for the first time,” Adams said.

Parallel to the funding push is Adams’ plan to hold forums about the RCV as part of an effort to boost civic engagement. “The details are still being determined but we look forward to rolling these forums out soon,” Jonah Allon, a spokesperson for Adams, told Gotham Gazette.

Adams is expected to be competing in the 2021 Democratic mayoral primary along with possible contenders such as Comptroller Scott Stringer, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, former city and federal official Shaun Donovan, former city veterans affairs commissioner Loree Sutton, and Dianne Morales, recently-departed CEO of Bronx social services nonprofit Phipps Neighborhoods.

Lerner and Adams also raised concerns on Wednesday about the city BOE’s push to get a new voting machine, the ExpressVote XL, certified for use by the New York State Board of Elections. They said the system, which uses an electronic touch-screen with no accompanying paper record, is less reliable and accurate than the current system, and has been almost universally criticized by election security experts.

The city currently uses a system in which voters mark a paper ballot that is then scanned by an electronic machine. Lerner said switching to a new system, when the current system is considered a good model, is a waste of taxpayer money.

Another caveat is the potential conflicts of interest for New York City BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan, who is accused of receiving gifts from Election Systems & Software, the company that makes ExpressVote XL, and is pushing the state board to certify the technology. Lerner’s Common Cause New York last week asked the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board to investigate Ryan’s connection with ES&S, which they say includes being flown across the country to conferences and serving on an advisory board for the company (after reporting by NY1 he stepped down from the advisory board).

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Push Begins to Educate New Yorkers About Ranked-Choice Voting Ahead of 2021 Implementation Wed, 05 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000