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How Ranked-Choice Voting Is Changing Progressive Politics in New York

John Nichols :: thenation.com

Go to the Working Families Party list of favored candidates in New York City’s June 22 Democratic primary election and you will find something unprecedented: an endorsement that ranks three contenders for the top job in the nation’s biggest city. In the race for mayor of New York, the WFP declares for City Comptroller Scott Stringer as the party’s first choice, former public school teacher and nonprofit CEO Dianne Morales as the second choice, and civil rights attorney and former MSNBC analyst Maya Wiley as the third choice.

The WFP, which for two decades has been a pivotal player in municipal politics and is run by some of the city’s savviest electoral strategists, isn’t sending mixed signals. It’s engaging exactly as it should to have the maximum influence on a new kind of election. This year, for the first time ever, New York City Democrats will nominate their candidates for mayor and other local posts using a ranked-choice system, where voters can choose as many as five candidates for the same office in a process that transfers votes from losing contenders to those who just might win.

What that means for the 2021 mayoral race is that voters no longer have to make “lesser-of-two-evils” choices between front-running candidates whom pollsters and pundits claim are the only “viable” prospects. They can cast ballots based on values and ideals, supporting candidates they are attracted to based on ideologies and track records. If a favored candidate falls short, the vote for that candidate isn’t “wasted.” It is transferred in a way that can still influence the final result. For instance, a voter who is excited by the progressive grassroots campaign Morales is waging, but who worries that she is not currently polling in the top tier of a crowded field, can confidently rank her first on their ballot. If Morales does not make the cut, the voter’s next ranked candidate gets a boost.

Ranked-choice voting is “more majoritarian” and it promotes “collaborative campaigning” as opposed to the desperate maneuvering of the past—with its negative campaigning, compromises, and pressure to avoid “wasting” votes—argues New York City Council member Brad Lander , a longtime RCV advocate who this year is bidding for city comptroller. “It’s a great thing for democracy,” says Lander. And it could be great for progressives running in crowded contests up and down the ballot. But that will only happen if voters know how the system works—and if progressive groups, officials, and candidates recognize the role that lots of education, serious strategy, and smart tactics will play in generating results on June 22.

With this in mind, here’s a primer on how to think about this RCV system in the Democratic primary where New York’s voters will nominate candidates for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough president, and all City Council seats:

What Progressives Need to Know About How Ranked-Choice Voting Works

Under the RCV system approved by New Yorkers with 74 percent support in a 2019 referendum, Democratic primary voters will receive ballots listing 12 mayoral candidates —Aaron Foldenauer, Dianne Morales, Scott Stringer, Ray McGuire, Maya Wiley, Paperboy Love Prince, Art Chang, Kathryn Garcia, Eric Adams, Isaac Wright Jr., Shaun Donovan, and Andrew Yang.

On that ballot, voters can rank up to five candidates. It’s OK to choose fewer, but ranking two, three, or more genuine progressives gives you a better chance to influence the ultimate result. That’s especially true if voters rank choices based on issue priorities—and recommendations from progressive groups, publications, and elected officials. This approach counters the influence of name recognition—which so far has benefited the front-running campaign of former presidential candidate Andrew Yang—and potentially of corporate-aligned outside money.

Voting in an RCV system is not complicated. But it is new for New Yorkers and, as Morales says, it’s important to “demystify the process” before voters start casting early and absentee ballots. Education is vital, including the use of scenarios that help explain how the system works on practical terms.

Here’s an example of how voting might go: Let’s say a voter favors Stringer, Morales, Wiley, Garcia, and Adams, in that order. That voter will fill in the first-choice bubble after Stringer’s name, the second-choice oval after Morales, and so on until five different bubbles have been filled after the names of five different candidates.

When all the ballots are cast, if any candidate has attracted over 50 percent of first-choice votes, then the race is done and they’re the nominee. But if in this crowded contest no candidate passes the 50 percent mark, the candidate with the least first-choice votes is eliminated and the votes of that candidate’s supporters are distributed to their next highest-ranked candidate. In the case of the voter who ranked Stringer first and Morales second, if Stringer falls short, Morales is bolstered.

The counting process continues with a candidate being eliminated in each round and their voters redistributed. For our voter who started as a Stringer backer and then gave Morales an assist, if Morales is eliminated in a later round, that vote goes to our voter’s third choice, Wiley. This process continues until one candidate gets over 50 percent. Practically, what this means is that our voter who liked Stringer best—but still gave high rankings to Morales and Wiley—could end up playing a pivotal role in nominating Wiley.

How Does Ranked-Choice Voting Change the Political Dynamic?

Under the RCV system, voters no longer have to be pundits, fretting about who is up or down in the polls. They don’t have to sacrifice the ideal candidate in order to side with a less-impressive contender they are told has a better chance to win. For progressives who are looking at a race that includes a lot of progressive prospects, what matters is that they rank their choices—one, two, three, four, five—with an eye toward electing a mayor who is clearly committed to economic, social, and racial justice.

In effect, ranked-choice voting allows for a nuanced politics of ideas and ideology to prevail over a simple politics of personalities.

“We can have win-win-win conversations around policies, which is an amazing kind of feeling in New York politics. We’re so used to the winner-take-all approach of cut-throat politics in New York,” says Ron Kim , a New York State Assemblymember from Queens who says that the old winner-take-all system encouraged negative campaigning that depressed turnout and made it harder to get marginalized communities engaged with elections. “Ranked-choice voting completely disrupts the toxic cycle from the inside out. The candidates themselves are much more collaborative because they recognize that they need to be ranked [two, three, or four among their opponents] to have a chance at winning.”

An RCV system necessarily changes the strategies of candidates and their endorsing supporters. That change opens up new options, and some new tactical challenges, for groups that hope to influence the 2021 races for mayor and other posts in a city where the Democratic primary is likely to be definitional.

The Working Families Party isn’t the only organization that has recognized the new dynamic and incorporated it into its thinking about how to make endorsements—and about the broader work of voter education and voter mobilization. The Stonewall Democratic Club of New York, a citywide LGBTQ+ organization, just endorsed Stringer as its first choice, Morales as its second, and former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire as its third.

The New York Political Action Network co-endorsed Wiley and Morales last month, with NYPAN cochair George Albro explaining, “We just saw this as a historic opportunity, two progressive women of color. Normally we would just make one endorsement. But because of ranked-choice voting and the role that it plays, we did both.” Around the same time, the Freelancers Union tapped Wiley and Yang. And on Earth Day, the Sunrise Movement’s New York chapter announced a joint endorsement of Stringer and Morales at an event where the two candidates appeared together and spoke amiably about shared values and goals—a sight rarely seen in past mayoral contests. (Yang recently said Kathryn Garcia is his second choice. More mayoral candidates are likely to offer their rankings before the primary.)

The shift in approach by endorsers—and the response by candidates—is the most notable manifestation of the changing political dynamic ushered in by the adoption of the ranked-choice system, which eliminates the fear of “wasting” a vote on a candidate who isn’t leading in the polls or piling up corporate cash.

What Are Best Resources for Educating Voters About Ranked-Choice Voting?

RCV is new to New York City, but it’s been utilized successfully around the world and across the United States for decades. “Once you have a good ballot design, ranked choice voting is easy for voters. Sensible poll worker training and timely voter education work will make it all the better for voters,” explains Rob Richie, the president of FairVote , a national group that supports RCV and has offered advice to New York on how to implement it. “In the last three years dating back to November 2016, ranked choice voting has been used: (1) In the state of Maine for all of its congressional primary and general elections; (2) In 17 cities around the country; and (3) in five Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses in 2020. In every single one of these RCV elections, voter turnout and voter success in casting RCV ballots exceeded expectations. New York City can expect similar positive results as well if implementation steps occur as they should.”

Here’s FairVote’s RCV explainer . And here’s an NBC video explanation , which FairVote encourages voters to view.

Here’s the resource-rich Rank The Vote NYC page.

The New York Campaign Finance Board explains RCV voting here . The page translates easily into 15 languages, including Albanian and Yiddish .

The New York Board of Elections has a fine explanation of the system and a terrific FAQ here . View a page on how everything looks on the AutoMark ballot marking device here .

A Board of Elections video explaining the process can be watched here .

“Ranked-choice voting has solved specific problems,” says Richie. “It has allowed voters to handle the kind of crowded fields that New York City can anticipate next year. Voters don’t need to see polls to know how to cast an effective vote—they simply need to indicate their honest preferences. Candidates don’t need any special tricks—they just need to engage with voters effectively.”

How Can Progressives Groups, Officials, and Activists Most Effectively Engage with Voters?

The websites and videos are helpful. But politics remains a grassroots, neighborhood-focused project in cities such as New York. The most effective endorsements are often those delivered by groups and officials that voters—or potential voters—know. And the most effective of these are the ones that come with explanations of how the new system works and how best to rank candidates.

The best way to do this is by offering specific rankings and by working with favored candidates to educate and engage voters.

State Senator Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat, offered an example of how to do this early on. In January, he held an event at which he described ranked-choice voting and then announced his top two picks: Stringer and Morales, in that order. He invited both candidates to the event, talked them up, and encouraged them to speak about the process and their campaigns. Stringer hailed RCV’s potential to promote “a civil discussion in this city on the issues that matter the most.” Morales explained , “Candidates like me—political outsiders, first timers, women of color—are often overlooked during our races. Words like viability and electability, which often serve as code for those with wealthy networks or deep pockets, serve as gatekeepers, even though most of us would agree that elected office should be accessible to everyone. Ranked-choice voting has the potential to give voters real options and change the playing field for candidates like me.”

Rivera has continued to appear with his endorsed candidates in his district, and he has used social media to spread the word about their stands on the issues .

As the election gets closer, savvy groups and candidates will use traditional slate cards and social media to promote ranked candidates. And they won’t just do it for the mayoral race. Ron Kim recently endorsed two candidates running for a City Council seat in Queens, using a Zoom event to explain RCV and to introduce the candidates. Here’s the conversation .

Kim’s been an especially ardent champion of RCV, regularly appearing at events to educate voters in Queens and citywide, including a recent @RankTheVoteNYC event that featured an excellent discussion of down-ballot races.

Kim’s enthusiasm is compelling. “This is the biggest one in the entire country that we’re executing in the city, so all eyes are watching,” he says of New York’s first RCV vote. “If we do this right, I think we’ll set an entire trend across the nation, and we’ll see other municipalities adopting this model moving forward.”

A previous version of this article stated that Dianne Morales said in January that Scott Stringer was her second preferred candidate for NYC Mayor. She did say this, but it was said as a joke.

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