Queens contest offers the first test of ranked-choice voting

NYC's ranked-choice voting system will be put to the test on Feb. 2.
NYC's ranked-choice voting system will be put to the test on Feb. 2.
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
NYC's ranked-choice voting system will be put to the test on Feb. 2.

Queens contest offers the first test of ranked-choice voting

Organizers have been engaging in robust education campaigns to make sure voters are ready.
January 27, 2021

New York City’s new ranked-choice voting system will have its first test on Feb. 2, with eight candidates competing in the 24th City Council District in Queens in the race to replace former Council Member Rory Lancman, who resigned late last year to take a position in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration. Ranked-choice, also known as instant-runoff voting, will be used in special elections such as this and partisan primaries in New York City, beginning this year. So Tuesday’s contest, in which early voting has already begun, is viewed as an initial test of the new system ahead of the much larger June primaries, which include open races for mayor and comptroller, as well as a majority of City Council seats. 

Critics, including mayoral contender and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, have expressed concern that ranked-choice will be too complicated for many voters, causing disenfranchisement. With New York City being the largest municipality to implement the system – with over 8 million people and 5 million registered voters, it is far larger than other high-profile cities that use the voting system such as San Francisco and Minneapolis – how it works in New York could have major implications for reform’s national prospects. 

Under the new ranked-choice voting system, approved in 2019 through a charter amendment, voters can rank up to five candidates by preference. If no one wins a majority outright, the candidate with the least first-choice votes gets eliminated, and their supporters’ second-choice votes on those ballots get redistributed. This keeps happening until only two candidates are left and a winner is declared. Proponents have said it helps elect candidates of color and first time candidates, while helping to promote more collegial campaigning and less polarizing politics.

District 24 is located in Eastern Queens, covering neighborhoods including Kew Garden Hills, Jamaica Estates, Pomonok and Fresh Meadows. Outreach in the community has been robust in order to ensure that the diverse district, which includes a large South Asian American community, is informed not only about the special election, but of the new way to vote. The Campaign Finance Board has been holding virtual training sessions on ranked-choice voting, and the Board of Elections has sent explanatory mailers to every registered voter in the district. The coalition Rank the Vote has also been organizing in the district, sending mail to over 10,000 voters and working with community partners to get the word out. “I think a lot of the combined outreach efforts have been working, and folks have been starting to understand this concept,” Jagpreet Singh, lead organizer with the Chhaya, a Queens community development organization that works with South Asian and Indo-Carribean New Yorkers, said. He noted that he was “pleasantly surprised” when he encountered several people while he was doing outreach in Hillside last week who were already familiar with ranked-choice voting. 

Although voters approved ranked-choice voting in 2019, some continue to oppose the system, arguing that it will actually harm communities of color. A handful of City Council members and community organizations filed a lawsuit attempting to delay implementation. They charged that the city doesn’t have the time or resources to properly educate voters about a confusing new way to vote, which they said would disenfranchise people of color, low-income communities and immigrants who may encounter language barriers. Last month, a judge denied their request for a temporary restraining order to stop ranked-choice voting from being used in this election.

But those on the ground in District 24 have not seen those concerns come to light. “We handed out flyers, both in English and Bangla,” Janggo Mahmud, Queens organizer with Rank the Vote, said. “I've explained to (people) in my mother tongue, Bangla, and folks are getting it.” Mahmud worked with Singh on outreach efforts, who offered similar sentiments. “We've been able to clear up some confusion and questions, but for the most part, I think ranking is something we naturally do,” Singh said. He said it helps if voters had copies of sample ballots so they were familiar with the ballot setup before they vote.

The election will likely be scrutinized by ranked-choice voting opponents, and reviewed by election officials to figure out best practices. A potential hiccup emerged on Tuesday, when the city Board of Elections announced that it would hand-count ballots in the race if multiple rounds are needed, since the state Board of Elections has not approved new ranked-choice tabulation software. The city board will simultaneously test the software while hand counting. Although the late stage at which the city chose a vendor for the election and the ongoing miscommunication between the city and state has concerned some, Singh still feels confident the election will run smoothly. “It is a new system, but at the end of the day, so was early voting two years ago, so was this mass amount of absentee voting last year,” Singh said. “There's always going to be hiccups (but) those things have run smoothly.”

This already-historic election could be historic for another reason too, as it could elect New York City’s first South Asian American Council member. Of the eight candidates in this race, six are south Asian. Moumita Ahmed is a progressive organizer; Deepti Sharma is a small business owner and food justice advocate; Dilip Nath is a health care executive and voting rights advocate; Dr. Neeta Jain is a Queens district leader, the first Indian American elected to the position in New York; Soma Syed is an attorney; and Mujib Rahman is a community activist. 

The other two candidates are James Gennaro, who is white and previously held the City Council seat and is looking to win it back, and real estate agent (and “mystery figure”) Michael Brown, who is Black. Under the old system, in which the candidate with a plurality won, Singh said that the six South Asian candidates might be expected to split each others’ vote, leading a white candidate to win. But ranked-choice voting changes the odds by removing vote splitting. “I’m just really excited to know that the possibility of having a candidate of color, or perhaps even a woman of color, represent CD 24 for the first time is something that's imaginable,” Mahmud said.

Among the eight candidates, Jain has the lead in fundraising, with Sharma coming in second. Every candidate but Brown qualified for matching funds, with Jain, Syed and Nath raking in the most in qualifying funds. 

Ahmed, who is aligned with the Democratic Socialists of America and is backed by the Working Families Party, garnered some controversy for her response to a 2015 tweet that led to accusations of anti-Semitism. She has also faced backlash for her support of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement that targets Israel. Ahmed has staked out a left-wing position in the race, while others, including Gennaro and Rahman, have said they would be more moderate.

Gennaro has also faced criticism for skipping two forums hosted by South Asian groups, with others saying he did not do enough for that community in the district while he was in office. When asked about those criticisms at a candidate forum Tuesday evening, Gennaro called it “baloney” and that he was “known as the Bangladeshi councilman” during his time in the City Council.

Early voting lasts until Jan. 31, and election day is Feb. 2.

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