New York City

The New York City Charter Revision Commission voters’ guide

Here’s what New Yorkers planning to vote need to know.

Voting ballot

Voting ballot Sergey Tinyakov/Shutterstock

Election Day is just around the corner – Nov. 5, with early voting beginning Oct. 26 – and while 2019 is an off-off year election, it still could be a consequential one as New York City voters weigh in on changes proposed by the New York City Charter Revision Commission. These could be the most comprehensive City Charter revisions in decades.

Here’s what New Yorkers planning to vote need to know:

This is different than City Council legislation, or from the ballot initiatives in most states

Voters are not deciding on bills proposed by the City Council, or the equivalent in the form of a ballot initiative. These aren’t mere city laws, but changes that will be made to the New York City Charter, the city’s governing document. It’s like a city constitution and the revisions proposed by the commission are akin to amendments. The key difference between this process and the process required for federal and state constitutional amendments is that it happens far more easily and far more often. A commission is convened – generally at the behest of the mayor – to study the charter and propose ways to improve it. In fact, the city just voted on the proposals of a different, mayoral-appointed, charter revision commission last year. This year’s commission was different as it was created through City Council legislation and was made up of commissioners appointed by a variety of elected officials. This is the first time a commission was created in such a way. The recommendations go to the voters as ballot referendums that, if approved, get enacted immediately. But the frequency and relative ease with which these changes happen does not diminish the significance of the proposals. They still permanently change the city charter and affect how the city is run. So it’s kind of a big deal.

There are five questions to vote on

If you go to the polls in New York City on Nov. 5, be sure to turn over the ballot – this is where you will find all five questions to be decided. You are not required to vote for all of them if there is only one that you feel passionately about, nor must you weigh in on any of them at all. In all, the five questions encompass 19 total recommendations. But to keep the ballot from getting too unwieldy, the commission decided to break the recommendations up into five groups, grouped by subject. This means that each of those five questions is all-or-nothing proposition. 

The five groups are elections, Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), ethics and governance, city budget and land use. Elections includes three total proposals, CCRB encompasses five, ethics and governance has five, city budget includes four and land use has two. You can’t pick and choose the proposals within a group you like or don’t like – you either approve or veto the question in its entirety. 

Ranked-choice voting will likely have the most impact on every day New Yorkers

The elections question includes a proposal to implement a ranked-choice voting system for New York City municipal primary and special elections – in other words, the three citywide races and city council seats. It would not apply to general elections, nor to state races like for state Senate, nor federal races like for Congress. Since it would change the way that all New Yorkers vote, it would arguably have the greatest impact on the average person out of all the proposals. If approved, ranked-choice, also known as instant-runoff, would allow people to cast a vote for up to five different people, ranked by preference. Although they would not be allowed to put a sixth choice, the system does not require the voter to reach a fifth choice. If there is only one candidate someone likes, they could still simply cast their first choice vote and nothing else. If someone does not win outright, second and third choice votes get redistributed to leading candidates until someone has a majority.

Most of the proposals are in the weeds

For the rest of the questions, many of the proposals are either obscure and technical or will offer subtle changes that the average voter may not even notice once enacted. For the elections question, ranked choice is the main proposal for voters to worry about. For those considering the CCRB question, voters broadly will decide whether or not they are in favor of slightly expanding the power of the Civilian Complaint Review Board and providing some additional oversight for police officers in the city. The more controversial proposals of the ethics and governance question involves spreading some mayoral power to the City Council and other elected officials when it comes to specific appointments. The city budget question is perhaps the most in the weeds, but its most accessible proposal is to give borough presidents and the public advocate a guaranteed budget. The land use question would effectively change very little in the city’s land use process if approved, with commissioners themselves saying that the issue was too complicated for them to effectively tackle. 

The commission has no shortage of useful information on its website

You may want to know more in order to make an informed decision on supporting the proposals. Luckily, the commission has a variety of useful materials that explain each proposal and what it would do. They include the actual ballot language, a fact sheet on each individual proposal and the commission’s final report, which not only provides in-depth background on each proposal, but also includes the specific changes that would be made to the charter itself.