Ranked-choice voting education ramps into high gear

City Council Member I. Daneek Miller
City Council Member I. Daneek Miller
William Alatriste/New York City Council
City Council Member I. Daneek Miller

Ranked-choice voting education ramps into high gear

Advocates are confident their outreach efforts are working, while skeptics are preparing for the worst.
June 9, 2021

With ranked-choice voting on the precipice of its first major test in the New York City primaries and early voting beginning on June 12, voter education is kicking into high gear.

Since voters approved the new system in 2019, education and outreach has been one of the leading concerns among opponents and proponents of ranked-choice voting alike. Even if it’s as simple as advocates say, the chance to rank up to five candidates by preference instead of just picking one is still a big change. Although questions were raised last year whether the Campaign Finance Board – which is charter-mandated to educate voters on elections – would have enough time to prepare voters, it and other organizations doing outreach maintained there would be more than enough time. 

“Our plan all along was to really get in front of voters at this moment, when they're starting to really pay attention to the race,” CFB Assistant Executive Director for Public Affairs Eric Friedman recently told City & State. He noted that the New York City Voters’ Guide, which explains ranked-choice voting, recently got sent to every registered voter in the city. The CFB launched a new interactive website, voting.nyc, last month in addition to their broader advertising campaign on television, radio and posters.

The CFB has also done direct training with about 8,000 – a drop in the bucket when considering the millions of registered voters. Freidman said the training is meant to give attendees the tools and knowledge to share the information with members of their own community. 

Rank the Vote NYC is a ranked-choice voting advocacy organization that has been actively engaging with voters to get them educated about ranked-choice voting. Sean Dugar, the education campaign program director, said the group has hosted over 400 workshops which directly reached over 250,000 people. Most of those events were virtual due to the pandemic, but Dugar said recently they have shifted to in-person events.

Those numbers still pale in comparison to the number of registered voters, Dugar said he was confident that people are getting the information they need, especially through the work of nonprofits, community partners and the city. “There are billboards, there are bus shelters, there are posters in bodegas,” Dugar said. “And then candidates as they're reaching out to people… are also talking about ranked choice voting – not just candidates, but endorsing organizations,” Dugar added.

Although the city originally allocated just $2 million for education to the CFB, far less than what lawmakers and advocates were asking for, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced another $15 million for outreach. “We’re definitely seeing, in terms of the way that outreach is being done and the way that it's being coordinated, now is much easier and more wide reaching because of that money,” Dugar said. 

Friedman said about $10 million of these funds, which is being administered by Democracy NYC, a city initiative aimed at promoting civic engagement, is going to media, especially community and ethnic media, for a robust advertising campaign out of City Hall. He said that about $3 million is going directly to civic and neighbor groups, with another $2 million going towards translation services to get informational materials in more languages. “All of that is certainly helpful and useful in getting our resources in far more voters,” Friedman said.

The election will be the ultimate test of how successful education has been, but recent polling seems to indicate that the message is getting out there. A May 26 poll from Fontas Advisors and Core Analytics found that 72% percent of polled voters had heard at least a little about ranked-choice voting, up from 57% in March. Exit polling after two Queens special elections in February found that voters overwhelmingly felt ranked-choice voting was very or somewhat simple. Dugar added he’s found that explaining the new system to voters has gotten easier as the election approaches and people begin to pay attention.

But there are still those concerned that none of this is enough. City Council Member I. Daneek Miller, and leads the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus who opposed ranked-choice voting in 2019 and who was part of a lawsuit to postpone it last year, remains skeptical. “Clearly, the city has stepped up its game,” Miller, who hails from Southeast Queens, told City & State regarding efforts to raise awareness. “But people actually understanding what that process is and, more specifically, understanding it as a political strategy is a concern.” Miller said that based on his own anecdotal evidence from knocking on doors in his Queens district, he believes that awareness is closer to 50 percent, despite what recent polling says.

One selling point of ranked-choice voting is that the voter no longer needs to think much in terms of political strategy. Under the old system, voters who back a candidate who aligns with them the most ideologically but have no chance of winning give up the chance to choose among the top competitors. Ranked-choice voting eliminates that risk because a voter can cast their favorite candidate as their first vote and a more viable candidate as one of their lower-ranked choices. If their first choice gets eliminated, their vote can still get redistributed to their second choice and so on. But many voters might mistakenly still think they need to rank their most viable preferred candidate first, for example. 

Miller said that he has also been reaching out to voters in his district to make sure they're prepared, but said he still doesn’t believe there’s enough time to create true understanding among the majority of voters, especially older and low-income people. He recently introduced legislation to put the voting system back on the ballot in November. It was overwhelmingly approved by voters as a ballot referendum in 2019, but in a very low-turnout election. “With the gravity of this democracy and the change in the system, it requires more public discourse, requires more engagement,” Miller said. His bill wouldn’t impact the June election, but is meant to offer recourse to voters if it turns out catastrophically. 

Miller also criticized the long wait expected for results. Due to state laws regarding counting and receipt of absentee ballots, and laws permitting voters to fix mistakes on their mail-in ballots, results could take three weeks to learn. The only exception is if a candidate gets well over 50% on election night, which means it’s a safe bet that they’ll emerge victorious short of a massive upset through absentees. Incumbents may fall into this category, and perhaps some Council candidates. For competitive races for open seats, New Yorkers should settle in for a long wait. 

Rebecca C. Lewis
is deputy state politics reporter at City & State.
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