Ranked-choice voting in NYC primaries prompts concerns: ‘People are going to be confused’

Originally ran in the New York Daily News, written by Tim Balk.

As New York City’s first foray into ranked-choice voting in primary elections approaches this June, concerns remain that last-minute efforts to educate the public may come up short.

The system, which allows voters to rank their top five choices, will be used in a raft of local elections, including those for mayor, City Council and comptroller, but not for state or federal races.

It’s difficult to predict how the change will influence the surreal pandemic-plagued race for City Hall. But critics worry that the ballot-box wrinkle will muddy an already odd election, and the new system was whacked like a piñata at a City Council meeting in December.

Three months later, and little more than 100 days from a Democratic primary that’s expected to determine the next mayor, skeptics said the window to bring the city up to speed is closing.

Puzzled voters could slow down voting, prompting long lines, and an education effort that only reaches some neighborhoods might give some citizens more say than others, according to critics.

“People are going to be confused — we’re not educating them properly,” said Sid Davidoff, who has advised several mayors and worked in city politics since the 1960s. “This is truly trying to fix a system that wasn’t broken.”

The New York Campaign Finance Board, which is responsible for the education rollout, set aside $2 million for the effort and has flyers and an animated video in the works, said spokesperson Matt Sollars.

“Since the beginning of the year, we have launched a comprehensive effort to educate New Yorkers about this exciting new way to vote,” Sollars said Friday in a statement. “In the weeks leading up to the primary election, we will spotlight Ranked Choice Voting with a citywide advertising campaign.”

Candidates have also stepped up their own pushes to teach the city about the process, and the Board of Elections sent out educational leaflets and crafted colorful palm card explainers in multiple languages.

Campaign watchers worry, however, that the procedure will go over many confused citizens’ heads, and ballots will be left mostly blank.

“It’s concerning that people don’t know enough about RCV,” State Sen. John Liu (D-Queens), who ran for mayor in 2013, told the Daily News. “Pumping a lot of money into an education effort within a short period of time may not achieve the saturation that is sometimes necessary to boost levels of awareness.”

Proponents of the method say that it can reduce negative campaigning and provoke outreach beyond entrenched political tribes.

If no mayoral hopeful captures a majority of first-choice votes, a process of elimination will follow based on how voters ranked their options. The crowded field in the Democratic primary may ensure such an outcome.

New York City joins municipalities including Minneapolis, San Francisco and Santa Fe in sailing into the world of ranked-choice, and the Big Apple’s rollout could set a course for other places to follow.

Josue Pierre, who is running for City Council in the 40th District — a swath of central Brooklyn that includes Flatbush — said most locals he speaks to remain unaware of the shift.

“Those folks are going to show up on Election Day and ask: What is going on here?” Pierre told the Daily News. “That’s going to have the effect of long lines, confusion and maybe voter disenfranchisement — not intended, but as a consequence.”

He said he’s particularly concerned about getting the message out to citizens who use English as a second language, adding that a system that could theoretically boost participation is being “made to fail.”

Before Christmas, members of the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus staged an unsuccessful legal battle to stop the rollout, arguing that the city lacked the resources to make a success of ranked-choice voting.

The city had its first trial run with the new process in early February, when candidates vied for an open City Council seat in central Queens, but James Gennaro won easily.

Another election, held last month in southeast Queens, was closer. Votes are due to be counted manually this week, providing the first true test of ranked-choice tabulation.