2020 is coming to a close, and with its end comes the end to voting as we know it in New York City. The new year brings with it the first municipal elections to use ranked-choice, or instant-runoff, voting. With the first special election of the year scheduled for early February, the clock is ticking to begin educating the public about the new way of voting, and local lawmakers are not confident there’s enough time.
Voters approved ranked-choice voting through a ballot referendum to amend the City Charter in November 2019, with the first ranked-choice elections to take place in 2021. Under the new system, voters can choose up to five candidates, rather than just one, and rank each depending on preference. If no candidate gets 50% of the vote right off the bat, the person with the lowest number of first-choice votes gets eliminated, and their votes get distributed instead to the second-choice candidate on the ballot. This keeps going until only two candidates are left and the person with the higher percentage of vote wins. Advocates say it leads to more positive campaigning and helps women and candidates of color.
But in order for the new system to run smoothly, voters must be taught about the new system. And since getting approved, public education has been virtually nonexistent. Good government advocates have been calling on the city since February to educate voters about the new system, and demanded that $10 million in the 2021 budget be set aside for outreach. This, of course, was before the COVID-19 pandemic decimated the city’s finances. When the city Board of Elections submitted its report on implementing ranked-choice voting on June 30 (the day the budget was due), it did not include any fiscal analysis, nor details about public outreach.
Voter education has been among the chief concerns among political observers and candidates alike, even more than the city Board of Elections’ ability to handle the technical side. Even among those that support ranked-choice voting, many have expressed concern that the city is not doing enough to ensure voters know about the change and are informed about how to cast their ballot. “This is supposed to be an effort to bring out more voters and encourage voter participation,” progressive Democratic consultant Martha Ayon told City & State. “And now it's turned into complete voter disenfranchisement.”
The City Council held a hearing on the implementation on Monday, and public education was a major focus. A bill from Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel would implement a strict timeline for voter outreach and was one of two bills at the heart of the hearing. “A robust, multifaceted voter outreach and education campaign is an essential best practice,” Ampry-Samuel said during her opening remarks. “It is our responsibility to provide purposed and all-embracing education to voters – anything less is voter suppression.”
The Campaign Finance Board is charter mandated to handle the education portion of the rollout.Campaign Finance Board Executive Director Amy Loprest told City & State that the agency has $2 million budgeted specifically for ranked choice voting education and other projects for cohesive messaging around voting that will include ranked-choice, like upgrading the voter guide. She said the sum is more than is generally set aside. “This is not something new for us,” Loprest said. “We have been doing voter education outreach for more than 10 years and we have a track record of success.”
Loprest said that the Campaign Finance Board has been working on its plan for months, and that it was always meant to begin in January. She said that this year was solely focused on the many consequential elections that took place in 2020, and the many changes to voting that came about due to the pandemic. At the hearing, Loprest said that starting a broad education campaign would have simply sowed confusion this year.
The outreach will begin with a postcard being mailed to every registered voter in Council District 24 in Queens, where the first special election of the year will be held on February 2. The same will be done for every other upcoming special election. Loprest said that beyond that, the Campaign Finance Board will engage in a comprehensive advertising campaign with a focus on digital outreach, work with community partners to reach a wide range of communities and redesigning the annual voter print and digital voter guide to include a comprehensive explanation of ranked-choice voting in a variety of languages. “We are prepared to educate voters and to let them know how to vote in the new system,” Loprest told City & State. “I think there is enough time and we are ready to provide a robust education campaign.”
CFB Assistant Executive Director Eric Friedman added during the hearing that the CFB is already doing most of what would be required under Ampry-Samuel’s bill, although the additional translation services it would require would necessitate more funding. He also said the CFB has worked with focus groups that were entirely made up of people of color, a vast majority of whom spoke English as a second language, to develop best-practices for voter outreach.
However, many lawmakers at Monday’s hearing did not express confidence that the CFB can adequately educate voters in time for the June primaries, let alone several special elections early next year, given the limited time frame and the pandemic. “I believe there is an impossibility to educate people in the amount of time necessary on what ranked-choice voting will mean,” Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo said. She called it “a political injustice” and expressed no confidence that the CFB will be able to adequately educate underserved Black and Latino communities, as well as NYCHA residents. “This needs to be suspended by the charter, and in addition to that, this needs to be postponed for another election year,” Cumbo said.
Cumbo’s opinion was echoed by Council Members Robert Cornegy, Kalman Yeger, Adrienne Adams, Daneek Miller and Ampry-Samuel. “I’m not saying you’re not going to do everything you can,” Yeger, who called the print voter guide junk mail, said of the CFB. “What I’m saying is that if you do everything you can, you’re still set up to fail.” Cornegy mentioned that he received texts from groups that serve Black and Latino communities that the CFB had not reached out to them. Miller and Yeger expressed a general opposition to the system of ranked-choice voting, repeating criticisms that it would hurt people of color he made before the ballot referendum passed. With the exception of Yeger, all the critics were members of the Black, Asian and Latino Caucus that advocated against ranked-choice voting in 2019, and sent a letter to Council Speaker Corey Johnson asking to postpone the implementation of ranked-choice given the pandemic. Whether or not there is any legal avenue to postpone implementation given that it is part of the charter is unclear.
Sean Dugar, education campaign program director with the coalition Rank the Vote NYC, told City & State that there is still plenty enough time to educate voters. He said there’s even enough time for the special elections early next year. Dugar, who has worked on ranked-choice voting implementation efforts across the country, pointed to the city of Eastpointe, Michigan, which only had a month and a half to educate voters. He said the city is comparable in size to Council District 24, home of next year’s first special election. “Not only did they see overperformance compared to other cities in their use of ranked-choice voting, they also saw an increase in voter turnout,” Dugar said. “It can be done, it can be done fairly easily” with a comprehensive outreach effort that includes a broad coalition of groups working together, he added. Dugar called ranked-choice voting a “very user friendly system” once voters know about it and said that he has never seen what he would consider a failed rollout that led to the kind of voter disenfranchisement that some lawmakers fear.
Rank the Vote NYC, which is composed of a large number of good government, political groups and unions, has been doing ranked-choice voting education for months. Groups like theirs, and the organizations that make it up, will likely play a crucial role in getting the word out. So far, the coalition has been focused on training candidates and political organizations that make endorsements, both so that they understand campaigning in the new system but to ensure they are equipped to handle voters’ questions. Council Member Antonio Reynoso, at a press conference with Dugar before the hearing, said that a lot of the “responsibility of educating voters falls on candidates” when campaigning under the new system.
Rank the Vote NYC will soon shift towards broader public outreach with special attention on reaching underserved communities through partnerships with community groups, city agencies and libraries, as well as by hiring borough organizers with established relationships with community leaders. “We're really using an all of the above approach while also using best practices from the census and from other outreach efforts that have taken place during a pandemic,” Dugar said. He added that while some see the pandemic as a major detriment to education as especially low-income people have so many other things to worry about, Dugar said that it could also make voters easier to reach as they are more likely to be in their homes.
The City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus has made it clear they want to postpone ranked-choice voting to a less impactful election year and one without a pandemic, a view shared by former ranked-choice backer and mayoral candidate Eric Adams. Civil rights leader Kirsten John Foy, an opponent of ranked-choice voting, is seeking to file a lawsuit that would do just that. But the 2021 start date is part of the City Charter as passed by voter referendum in 2019, so a legal pathway forward remains murky. Regardless of how lawmakers and political observers might feel about the voter’s preparedness for a new voting system, come January 2021, it will be the law of the land unless something changes. “The people made a decision,” Reynoso, who was confident ranked-choice voting will be successful, bluntly said at the pre-hearing press conference. And that’s exactly why Ampry-Samuel feels her bill needs to pass. “I don’t think we’re there,” she said of the ability to educate voters and implement ranked-choice voting. “But it’s necessary.”
Correction: This post originally mislabeled the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus.