Gotham Gazette

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Ranked-Choice Voting is Not 'Political Gentrification,' It’s Opportunity

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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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