Why Some N.Y.C. Lawmakers Want to Rethink Ranked-Choice Voting

The new system was approved by voters in 2019, but critics, including at least one top mayoral candidate, fear that it may disenfranchise minority voters.

Originally ran in The New York Times, written by Dana Rubinstein, Jeffery C. Mays and Emma G. Fitzsimmons.

Next year was supposed to be when New York City would revolutionize how voters choose their mayor — not merely selecting one candidate, but picking as many as five and ranking them in order of preference.

New York’s take-no-prisoners political landscape was to be remade: Candidates would perhaps be more collegial and would be obliged to reach out to voters beyond their bases in the hope that other candidates’ supporters would list them as a second or third choice. Runoff elections, often expensive and with limited turnout, would be eliminated.

But just as the city is poised to put the ranked-choice voting system in place, opposition is mounting. Black elected officials have raised objections, arguing that absent substantial voter education, the system will effectively disenfranchise voters of color.

On Tuesday night, six New York City Council members filed suit in State Supreme Court in Manhattan seeking to stop the city from starting the new voting system. One leading Black mayoral candidate — Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, who once supported the system — now says it’s being rushed.

 “From my discussions with New Yorkers in lower-income communities of color, I am concerned that not enough education has been done about rank-choice voting to ensure a smooth transition to that method so soon,” Mr. Adams said in a statement.

Raymond J. McGuire, a Black business executive who is running for mayor, also questioned whether voters had received enough education about ranked-choice voting and said that without that education, he was “concerned” that the system would “disenfranchise Black and brown voters.”

Seventy-four percent of New York City voters approved ranked-choice voting in 2019. Under the new system, if a candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, that candidate wins outright. If no candidate wins a majority, the last-place winner is eliminated. The second-choice votes of those who had favored the last-place candidate would be counted instead. The process continues until there is a winner.

But with the mayoral primary less than seven months away, some campaigns are worried that the system could hurt Black candidates. They argue that a traditional approach would increase the chances of a runoff, where a Black candidate might perform better in a contest with only two names on the ballot.

Critics also question whether the city’s problem-prone Board of Elections can roll out such a complicated system during a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Two of the six Council members who brought the lawsuit, Adrienne E. Adams and I. Daneek Miller, lead the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus. The other four — Laurie A. Cumbo, Robert E. Cornegy Jr., Farah N. Louis and Alicka Ampry-Samuel — represent districts in Brooklyn, which is Mr. Adams’s home base.

The suit was filed by a law firm where Frank V. Carone, the counsel to the Brooklyn Democratic Party, is an executive partner.

 “They say all throughout the country that ranked-choice voting is working well for communities of color,” Ms. Cumbo, who has endorsed Mr. Adams for mayor, said during a Council hearing on Monday. “Well, New York City is a totally different city.”

The lawsuit was filed against the city, its Board of Elections and its Campaign Finance Board, contending that the city and the two boards had violated the law by failing to adequately explain the software that will be used to tabulate the votes and by failing to conduct a sufficient public education campaign to familiarize voters with the new system.

The suit seeks to prohibit the city from starting the new system in a February special election, a race that was poised to be a trial run for the June Democratic mayoral primary, which would use the same system and is likely to determine the city’s next mayor.

“The board does not comment on pending litigation,” said Valerie Vazquez, a spokeswoman for the elections board. “However, as we have previously stated, we will be ready to implement ranked-choice voting just as we successfully implemented a new voting system in 2010 and launched early voting in 2019.”

Amy Loprest, executive director of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, said that the board has been working on its educational efforts all year, and a formal public awareness campaign will launch soon.

Since November of 2016, ranked-choice voting has been used in Maine for all its state and federal primary elections as well as all general congressional elections and the general election for president starting this year. It has also been used in five Democratic presidential caucuses and primaries this year and in at least 18 municipalities around the country, according to FairVote, a nonpartisan election reform group that is a leading proponent of ranked-choice voting.

Some mayoral candidates seem to be factoring the new voting system into their campaign strategies, including Shaun Donovan, the former Obama administration cabinet member who formally announced his run on Tuesday. An “electability” slide show circulated on his behalf argued that “Shaun’s broad appeal makes him a natural second and third choice for voters, even when they are already committed to another candidate.”

Carlos Menchaca, a councilman from Brooklyn who is running for mayor, said he has already had discussions with at least one other candidate about running together — urging voters to choose a team of two candidates as their two top choices.

“Ranked-choice voting allows for partnership on the campaign trail,” he said.

Maya Wiley, another Black candidate, supports ranked-choice voting and said runoffs in the prior system diluted the votes of people of color and working-class New Yorkers.

“I look forward to continuing my campaign to reach New Yorkers in every corner of the city with our vision for a reimagined city that is more fair and just for everyone,” Ms. Wiley said in a statement.

Good-government groups say that the new system enhances democracy.

“The truth of the matter is that ranked-choice voting puts power into the hands of the voter,” said Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York. “And to the extent that there are party officials who are used to having undue influence over who the winner might be, I can see where they would be frightened by ranked-choice voting.”

But critics of the system argue that without adequate public education, the system confuses voters and thus disenfranchises them. They also contend that the voting system targets a party system heavily populated by leaders of color.

Kirsten John Foy, president of the activism group Arc of Justice, said he was exploring a separate lawsuit with Hazel N. Dukes, the president of the New York State chapter of the NAACP, arguing that Black and other minority voters would be disenfranchised by ranked-choice voting.

“Some progressive white folks got together in a room and thought this would be good, but it’s not good for our community,” Ms. Dukes said. “The voters did vote, so we can’t overturn that, but we want a stay because there’s been no education about this in our community.”

Mr. Foy also questioned the motives of those leading the effort to enact ranked-choice voting.

“The primary argument for ranked-choice voting is that it expands access to elected office for Black and brown officials, but we don’t have that problem,” said Mr. Foy, who listed a string of positions from state attorney general to borough presidents that are held by Black and Latino elected officials. “This is a solution in search of a problem.”

But Bertha Lewis, president of the Black Institute, said that there was “plenty of time for voters to learn to rank their vote.”

“Let me say it plainly: Black voters are not stupid,” she said in testimony submitted to the Council hearing on Monday. “It is insulting to say that they will not be able to understand.”

Ranked-choice voting has a long and complicated history in the United States.

“There was a period over 100 years ago when it was in use in some cities,” but it fell out of favor around World War II, according to David C. Kimball, a political-science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

In the past two decades, it has gained traction in places including San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., and in Maine.

The research on its impact on voter turnout is, however, mixed, he said, and voter education is a must, as American voters are accustomed to voting for just one candidate, not five.

“I don’t know quite how to put this politely, but the New York City elections board has trouble tying its shoes, metaphorically speaking,” Professor Kimball said. “So asking them to roll out new voting rules in a matter of months is a big ask.”

Dana Rubinstein is a reporter on the Metro desk covering New York City politics. Before joining The Times in 2020, she spent nine years at the publication now known as Politico New York. 

Jeffery C. Mays is a reporter on the Metro Desk who covers politics with a focus on New York City Hall. A native of Brooklyn, he is a graduate of Columbia University.

Emma G. Fitzsimmons is the City Hall bureau chief, covering politics in New York City. She previously covered the transit beat and breaking news.