Did Ranked Choice Voting Work in New York? It depends who you ask …

Under the new ranked-choice voting system, New Yorkers were able to vote for their top five choices for mayor and other city offices in last month’s primary.

When it came to whether the new system was working, supporters and critics alike offered what amounted to direct yes or no verdicts on Monday.

Preliminary results strongly suggest that most New Yorkers have embraced the new system, although Democratic Mayor primary winner Eric Adams and other critics have claimed that poor education efforts have essentially deprived some voters of the right to vote.

The full story could lie in the raw data of all the ballots, which the city’s election board has yet to release.

“People have come forward. We know they went to vote, ”said Sarah Goff, deputy director of Common Cause New York, a nonprofit campaigning for democratic engagement. “We know a lot of them obviously chose to rank.”

She pointed to the relatively low number of “exhausted” or “inactive” ballots, which means that most people’s ranked votes played a role in the final outcome of the Democratic mayoral contest in which Adams won. defeated Kathryn Garcia by less than a percentage point.

A Analysis Citizens Union Mayor’s 2021 primary results released on Monday found that just under 15% of the city’s voters had inactive ballots in the final round of elimination in the ranked choice vote .

By comparison, in the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary, 33% of voters voted for candidates who did not reach the top two places. According to the analysis, the decrease in what the report called “wasted” ballots was true for almost all of the primary races.

In addition, nearly a million voters went to the polls in the June primary, compared to just over 772,000 during the mayor’s primary in 2013.

The citywide turnout of more than 29% indicates that ranked-choice voting did not suppress votes or blow up regular voters at the polls, according to Ester Fuchs, professor of political science at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

“A problem of civic engagement”

Exit surveys, commissioned by Common Cause and Rank the Vote NYC and published in late June, showed that 78% of nearly 1,700 Democratic voters polled said they understood choice voting rated “extremely or very well.”

Most voters polled said they had ranked at least three candidates in the mayor’s primary, and 95% of voters polled found the ballot simple to complete – findings that applied to all ethnic groups.

Taken together, the data “gives us an indication that much of the criticism is politically motivated and not based on what voters think,” Fuchs said.

“We have a civic engagement problem,” she added. “We have a problem, because there are not enough people interested in the elections. This precedes the ranked choice vote. And the clearly ranked choice voting didn’t make matters worse, as the turnout increased. “

Eric Adams hosts a rally outside Brooklyn Borough Hall.
Ben Fractenberg / THE CITY

This is in direct contrast to what Adams WNYC’s Brian Lehrer told Monday: The Brooklyn Borough President said ranked choice voting has become an issue due to the inability to educate voters, although he did not provide any data to back up his claims.

“Your listeners, Brian, your New York Times readers, your Wall Street Journal readers and anyone who has had the ability to analyze all of this information, this is good for them,” Adams said. “But that’s not the reality when English is a second language, it’s not the reality for 85 or 90 year old voters trying to navigate the process. Every new barrier you put up, you’re going to lose voters in the process… I knew this was going to be a problem and it turned out to be a problem.

“Sophisticated voter suppression”

Divided views on ranked-choice voting emerged long before the failed rollout of preliminary results by the city’s electoral council – a mess that had nothing to do with ranked-choice voting, but sparked fears of undermining confidence in the new system.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting, which New Yorkers approved in a 2019 referendum, said it would result in a positive and collaborative campaign. They also said the system would attract more candidates – and more diverse – and prevent the division of votes between voting blocs.

With ranked choice voting, New Yorkers can select up to five candidates from their ballots in order of preference. If no candidate obtains more than 50% of the first place votes, a second round is held until one of them comes out on top. The candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated in each round and their votes go to the supporters’ second choice.

But critics feared the system would rob voters of the right to vote, especially people of color and low-income New Yorkers, who might not have time to learn the process.

Board Member I. Daneek Miller (D-Queens)

Board Member I. Daneek Miller (D-Queens)
Ben Fractenberg / THE CITY

Many members of the Black, Latino and Asian city council caucus opposite vote by choice classified and unsuccessful for follow-up delay its deployment. Councilmember I. Daneek Miller (D-Queens), Caucus Co-Chair, Sponsor a bill this would repeal the city charter’s ranked choice vote and put it up for another vote in November.

In a hearing held Monday by the Assembly‘s Standing Committee on Electoral Law, Miller said the roll-out of ranked choice voting has weighed on some communities already struggling due to the pandemic – and accused the Voter education efforts had not reached the elderly, non-English speakers and those without internet access.

“It’s a sophisticated voter suppression, but it’s a voter suppression,” Miller said.

“New Yorkers are smart”

Voting experts and political observers in other jurisdictions who use ranked choice voting have said widespread education campaigns can fill any knowledge gap in demographics.

The city – through the Elections Council, Campaign Funding Council and DemocracyNYC – conducted outreach activities in person, online, by phone and text, organized an outdoor and multimedia advertising campaign, and created multilingual material to educate voters on the use of the ranking system.

Groups such as Rank the Vote NYC have partnered with community organizations to educate voters and knocked on nearly 55,000 doors in the five boroughs.

“DemocracyNYC’s $ 15 million investment in voter education was unprecedented in size and scale,” said Laura Wood, the city’s democracy manager.

The increased voter turnout and the results of the Rank the Vote exit survey, she added, “are a testament to our innovative media strategy, creative messaging and close collaboration with trusted community groups – and it is a model to be emulated in future electoral cycles ”.

At Monday’s assembly hearing, Esmeralda Simmons, a civil rights lawyer and executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, criticized the BOE for not properly preparing the public.

But she praised community groups, such as the NAACP, for doing most of the outreach work – and said the outcome was “good enough.”

“It’s because New Yorkers are smart, and if someone tells them they can have five bites of an apple, then most people will take five bites,” Simmons said. “Some people are used to taking just one bite and taking only one bite, but I bet you the second time around [ranked choice voting] goes around… they’re going to take five bites.

It is possible that a voter who “took only a bite of an apple” and voted for one candidate would have had their vote count to the very end – if they had voted for Adams or Garcia in the mayor’s primary, for example.

An exhausted or inactive ballot is one that does not rank one of the two remaining candidates after all the elimination rounds. This could mean that the voter has selected five other candidates or ranked less than five, whether or not they know how to use the system.

So where some opponents of ranked voting have presented the exhausted ballots as “a reflection of the electorate’s ignorance, lack of competence and / or objections to ranked voting,” in the words of Reverend Kirsten. John Foy, Northeast Regional Director of the National Action Network, it’s not that simple.

“The fact that there have been so few exhausted ballots,” said Goff, “at least in the mayoral race is a testament to the fact that people used all five leaderboards. It’s not perfect, but it is an indirect measure of educational penetration efforts.

More data needed

Only a detailed analysis of the recording of votes cast – the digital repository of raw data for all ballots cast – will shed light on the differences in how various voter demographics approached ranked choice voting during the election. ‘primary election. Researchers can use this data to uncover local patterns.

“Inactive ballot templates can help understand the extent to which different communities have or have not fully utilized ranked choice voting options,” said Steve Romalewski, director of the CUNY Mapping Service. “We will look at the data from the cast ballots to see where there are concentrations, if any, of voters who chose fewer than five candidates, or if these patterns appear to be random and do not match any other characteristics of the vote. population.”

The recording of votes cast can also indicate where the city and independent groups may target subsequent efforts to educate voters.

“Once we have more granular data, we can at least establish a baseline and identify [election districts and Assembly districts] where they might have been less likely to rank and follow that, ”Goff said.

The data will help determine more clearly whether voters seemed to really rank their candidates or whether they simply filled out the ballot diagonally all the way to the bottom, she said.

The record of votes cast will be available after the BOE certifies all races, said Valerie Vazquez-Diaz, a spokesperson for the agency. Certification is expected from Tuesday.

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