New York City ballot questions approved overwhelmingly

A ballot being cast.
A ballot being cast.
Alexandru Nika/Shutterstock

New York City ballot questions approved overwhelmingly

Ranked-choice voting is officially coming to NYC.
November 5, 2019

New York City voters have approved all five charter revision ballot questions. Each passed by an overwhelming majority – all received at least 70% approval – although overall turnout for the election was still very low. With 90.03% of scanners reporting, only about 13% of active registered voters in the city weighed in on the proposals. “New Yorkers have spoken overwhelmingly for change to the charter, the city’s constitution,” Gail Benjamin, the chairwoman of the Charter Revision Commission that came up with the questions, said in a statement. “The commission worked for more than a year, and we are pleased the voters endorsed our work.”

Each of the questions included several proposals bundled together. Here’s how they all shook out.

Ballot Question 1

The most significant change that voters approved is the implementation of ranked-choice voting for municipal primary and special elections beginning in 2021. This means that in those races for mayor, public advocate, city comptroller, City Council and borough president, voters will no longer pick just one candidate, but rank up to five by preference. If no candidate receives an outright majority of first-choice votes, the bottom candidate gets eliminated and the second choices on his or her ballots get redistributed. This continues happening until a winner emerges with the majority. The idea is to ensure that more people have a voice in who wins an election, even if their first choice doesn’t prevail. It will also save money by eliminating potentially costly runoff elections for citywide primaries.

Advocates lauded the approval of Ballot Question 1, which also included proposals on timing of special elections and redistricting. "Ranked-choice voting is the simple solution that puts power back in the hands of the people where it belongs,” Common Cause New York Executive Director Susan Lerner said in a statement. “We look forward to working with our diverse partners and elected officials to educate New Yorkers on how this important reform will work in the local 2021 elections and beyond.” Common Cause joined a broad coalition that spent nearly $785,000 encouraging voters to vote yes on the question through a political action committee, the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting NYC. Although several other municipalities across the country have adopted a similar voting system – as well as the entire state of Maine – New York City will be the most populous by far to implement the system – a distinction garnered the charter revision proposal national media attention. 

However, not everyone was on board with ranked choice. The City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus came out against the proposal shortly before Election Day. Caucus co-chairman I. Daneek Miller said the system would hurt communities of color and diminish the power of those communities’ voting blocs.

Ballot Question 2

Ballot Question 2, which included changes to the agency that investigates police misconduct, was the other high-profile proposal to get approved. It will expand the Civilian Complaint Review Board both in numbers and power, adding members, giving it new authority to investigate false statements by officers and protecting its staff budget. The proposal did not have a visible public push similar to that for ranked-choice, but it did have its supporters. “Because of the powerful position of police officers, it is essential to strengthen oversight of the New York City Police Department and ensure that instances of officer misconduct are answered with appropriate actions,” Citizens Union Executive Director Betsy Gotbaum said in a statement.

The ballot question did, however, face opposition from the Police Benevolent Association, the city’s largest police union, who engaged in a public campaign against the proposals. The union called the CCRB a “failed institution” and said that any sort of expansion would be disastrous for the city. 

Ballot Question 3

The other three ballot questions got far less media coverage, but were approved nonetheless. The third question – the most eclectic of the ballot questions – had to do with ethics and governance. It creates a new two-year lobbying ban for former city officials, imposes new campaign participation restrictions for Conflicts of Interest Board members and requires the city’s corporation counsel, who is appointed by the mayor, to be approved by the City Council. The good-government group Citizens Union recommended a “no” vote on the proposal because it encompassed too many disparate ideas into one question.

Ballot Question 4

The fourth question deals with the city budget and would enable the city to create a rainy day fund, provide the public advocate and borough presidents with guaranteed budgets, and impose certain new budget deadlines for the mayor. Somewhat surprisingly, this question was the closest, although it still passed with 71% approval, with 90.03% of scanners reporting.

Ballot Question 5

The final question dealt with land use, and implements only minor changes. Land use is a perennial issue for the charter revision commissions, but rarely does it get any sort of major overhaul. The City Council advocated for the adoption of comprehensive city planning to ensure that development throughout the city is done equitably while addressing the city’s housing needs. The Charter Revision Commission, the body that came out with the ballot questions after months of deliberation, ultimately did not adopt a proposal on comprehensive planning and largely punted on land use, saying the issue was too complicated. Community boards and borough officials will have slightly more time to review Uniform Land Use Review Procedure applications (the process required for any development that needs a rezoning): 30 days at the beginning of the process and between 15 and 30 additional days for the public review period. Despite the relatively minor changes, The New York Times still came out against Ballot Question 5 because it will still make the already arduous ULURP process longer.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.
20200122