Lawsuit Seeks To Block The Start Of Ranked-Choice Voting Next Year

Brigid Bergin :: Gothamist

An influential coalition of City Council members and community groups intensified their opposition to ranked-choice voting late Tuesday, filing a lawsuit against two agencies that oversee elections in an effort to halt the new voting system from taking effect early next year.

In a complaint filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, the plaintiffs argue the New York City Board of Elections (BOE) and the Campaign Finance Board (CFB) have failed to meet their obligations mandated by the City Charter to roll out the new voting system and educate communities about it. Those failures, they assert, could adversely impact communities with limited-English proficiency and communities of color.

The plaintiffs include Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo; the co-chairs of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, Adrienne Adams and I. Daneek Miller; and Councilmembers Alicka Ampry-Samuel, Farah Louis, and Robert Cornegy, a candidate for Brooklyn borough president, along with 10 community organizations.

They are being represented by Frank Carone, an attorney with deep ties to both the Brooklyn Democratic organization and mayoral candidate Eric Adams, the Brooklyn Borough president, who also has raised concerns about ranked-choice voting. The suit comes roughly six weeks before the first election that would use the new voting system: a special election to fill the vacancy in the 24th City Council district, left open when Rory Lancman resigned last month to take a position in the Cuomo administration.

Ranked-choice voting [RCV] will allow voters to pick up to five candidates in order of preference during the primary and special elections. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the total, the last place finisher is eliminated. The voters who picked the eliminated candidate as their first choice will have their second choice counted, with the same process repeating until one candidate surpasses 50%.

When voters approved the new system by 74% in a ballot referendum in 2019, it faced little opposition until just days before the vote. Now, many of those raising the most vocal concerns are from a narrower constituency with close ties to their county machines and, in some cases, Adams’s mayoral campaign.

However, that is not the case for all the plaintiffs. Councilmember Adrienne Adams (no relation), who represents part of southeast Queens and has not yet endorsed a mayoral candidate, told Gothamist/WNYC that it was the poor performance by the BOE and CFB at Monday’s hearing that made her join the lawsuit.

“If you're telling voters to rank one through five and you've got between nine and 11 candidates in any race, there is going to need to be preparation. You've now got to research even more candidates at this point,” said Adams.

Her frustration was targeted particularly at the CFB who she said provided an overly simplistic description of ranked-choice voting at a recent City Council hearing, comparing it to a grocery list. “How dare you? This is not a grocery list. This is going to be learning about the candidates that you're voting for,” she said.

She dismissed a question about whether the lawsuit was an effort by county machines to protect the voting system they know and understand. But there are Democratic county leaders who openly oppose the new system.

“All five county leaders hate this crap,” said former Assemblyman Keith Wright, head of the Manhattan County Democrats, who objected to how proponents of the law spoke directly to reducing the influence of party leaders. “They said, ‘Take the county leaders out of your vote. Don't let county leaders control your vote. Vote for rank choice voting.’ Well, if county leaders control all these votes, you know, my behind would be sitting up there on Capitol Hill right now,” he said, in reference to his unsuccessful Congressional bid four years ago.

He also said the new initiative was conceived in a “clandestine” manner. As an example, he said the 7-point font size on the ballot was so small that people didn’t know what they were voting for.

The substance of the ballot question came out of a Charter Revision Commission that held multiple public hearings in all five boroughs over the course of a year.

“There was no conspiracy to pass RCV, there was an election,” said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY, who led a campaign in support of the initiative in 2019. “The decision to put RCV on the ballot was not conducted in a backroom but in broad daylight by the Charter Review Commission -- appointed by the City Council, among others -- which held numerous public hearings over the course of months.”

A spokesperson for the city BOE declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing their policy on pending litigation. The head of Campaign Finance Board insisted they would continue their ongoing educational efforts ahead of the upcoming elections.

“We welcome any organization that will join with us to make sure all of New York City’s communities are prepared for the 2021 elections,” said Amy Loprest, the CFB’s executive director. “We are confident that, with support from our community partners, government, and elected officials, we will get this done.”

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