The return of ranked-choice voting comes with a long-shot push to make New York City elections nonpartisan and more inclusive.
The 2023 election cycle in New York City will include races for all 51 members of the City Council, beginning with primary contests in June. These local elections will be conducted using the ranked-choice voting system adopted by voters for local primary and special elections.
The system allows voters to rank up to five candidates in order of preference. When the votes are tallied, if no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, then the candidate with lowest number of first-rank votes is eliminated. Voters who chose that candidate will have their votes transferred to the remaining candidates in order of preference, and the rounds of counting until one candidate reaches the winning threshold.
In anticipation of this year’s elections, the City Council passed legislation last month that aimed at clarifying the instructions and design on ranked-choice ballots. The legislation, sponsored by Queens Councilmember Sandra Ung, is intended to make the layout of ranked-choice contests clearer, ensuring different languages are clearly separated, contests are presented distinctly, and instructions in English and other languages are comparable.
“The legislation is to make sure more people actually do have the opportunity to use ranked-choice voting and it is more accessible to everyone, especially communities where English isn’t the first language,” said Ung.
The bill was sent to Mayor Eric Adams’ desk on Dec. 7 of last year. (He has 30 days to sign or veto it, otherwise it automatically becomes law.) Its passage earned praise from ranked-choice voting supporters like Common Cause NY and the Asian American Federation.
An alternative approach
Even though ranked-choice voting is still relatively new for New York City voters, Sal Albanese, a former city councilmember and mayoral candidate, is leading the charge on an alternative voting system called “final five voting.” Under that method, the city would hold a single, open, nonpartisan primary where any registered voter, including non-affiliated voters also known as “independents,” could participate.
The candidates who come in the top five spots would then move on to a ranked-choice voting general election.
“Every New Yorker, including 1.2 million independents should have the ability to participate in the most important elections in the city,” said Albanese, who is chair of New Yorkers for Competitive Elections, the organization pushing final five voting. New York conducts closed primary elections, which means only voters in a party with a primary are allowed to cast a ballot, most commonly Democrats and Republicans. Non-affiliated voters can only vote in the general election.
Albanese said the group, which is currently operating with two staffers funded by a $70,000 grant from the Institute for Political Innovation, plans to launch a formal campaign to raise awareness about final five voting next week.
In March, the group plans to circulate a petition for a ballot initiative to enact final five voting in time for the 2025 mayoral election. That proposal would be filed with the city clerk and would need to pass the Council before it is presented to voters. If the Council declines to act, then Albanese said the group could collect additional signatures to try to place the charter change on the ballot before voters, echoing the path taken to enact term limits three decades ago.
Susan Lerner, who runs Common Cause New York and led the Rank the Vote NYC coalition, said she did not anticipate voters would welcome another layer of changes to local elections. Instead, she said the focus should be on increased voter education and engagement around the current ranked-choice voting system, which was adopted after a multiyear vetting process by the city’s 2019 Charter Revision Commission and its staff before it was presented to voters.
“Ranked-choice voting as it currently exists in New York City should be allowed to settle in,” said Lerner. “It’s not time yet to make significant revisions.”
Leaning into the current system
Although ranked-choice voting faced legal pushback before its initial implementation in 2021 — with opponents arguing it would harm voters in minority communities — its proponents cite the Council results from elections that same year, when voters elected a majority of women councilmembers and more people of color than ever before in the body’s history.
“Ranked-choice voting is a tremendous contributor to the ability to achieve authentic gender parity,” said Jessica Haller, executive director of the New Majority NYC. She cited research conducted by RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan nonprofit that studies strategies that help women get elected at all levels of government.
In a report released last fall, RepresentWomen found a combination of factors helped women succeed in the city’s 2021 elections with ranked-choice voting lead among them. Haller said her organization is so committed to fostering more awareness of ranked-choice voting that it uses it to make its own board decisions.
“We actually did a ranked-choice vote on our new name internally,” Haller told Gothamist, noting that the organization was formerly known as 21 in ‘21. The group was founded to elect a minimum of 21 women to the City Council in the 2021 elections. At the time, only 14 women served in the Council; now, there are 31.
The organization endorsed 74 candidates in 35 districts that year. Of the current women councilmembers, 21 of RepresentWomen’s first-ranked candidates won.
One of those new councilmembers is Amanda Farías of the Bronx. She was endorsed by the group in 2021 and was the winner in an eight-candidate primary. She won the most votes in the first tally, but it took six rounds for her to reach the over 50% threshold.
In her 2021 campaign, Farías made strategic decisions to reach out beyond her base, sending out mailers in two and even three languages. In the neighborhood of Parkchester, which is home to a significant Bangladeshi population, she sent out a mailer in Bengali that reflected the issues she knew were of greatest concern after polling and knocking on doors in the community. She also teamed up to campaign with two other candidates in the race: William Russell Moore and Mirza Rashid, one of the two Bangladeshi candidates on the ballot.
As part of those cross-endorsements, Farías used a portion of her campaign dollars to pay for joint mailers and other joint media, even when she was appealing to voters as their second or third choice. “I dedicated money, which I think had the biggest return on investment, to show the community members that trusted these folks that I also am putting my money where my mouth was in terms of supporting them on the ballot,” she said.
Farías expects to bring the lessons she learned from her success two years ago to her re-election bid this year. The unusually timed elections, which took place two years after members were elected instead of four, are a product of the decennial redistricting process. Council district boundaries have changed.
She said she hopes the city keeps up its investment in educating voters about ranked-choice voting.
“Our electorate, we’re hoping, just keeps expanding,” said Farías, “but we have to make sure we’re committed to keeping people civically engaged.”