Queens Special Election Becomes Ranked-Choice Voting “Testing Ground”

Brigid Bergin :: Gothamist

Ranked-choice voting makes its New York City debut this weekend in a special election to fill a City Council seat in eastern Queens. It’s the first of several elections this spring leading up to the democratic primary for mayor in June, that will introduce voters to an entirely new way of selecting their political leaders.

While the ranking system of voting has been used in other municipalities, including San Francisco and Minneapolis, this special election will be the first time voters see how it plays out in New York, with skeptics ready to spotlight any perceived failings and those outside the district ready to apply lessons to their own communities and campaigns.

“This election is going to be looked at by hundreds of other candidates as a testing ground, as a way to figure out how they play into ranked-choice voting,” said Jagpreet Singh Khakh, lead organizer with Chhaya, a community development organization that works with the large South Asian and Indo-Caribbean residents in Queens, and has been leading ranked-choice voting trainings and community outreach all month.

“I think it's what's going to come out of this election is going to kind of set the tone for the rest of the elections in New York City for this year,” he said.

The new Ranked-Choice Voting system, which was approved by nearly three quarters of the voters in 2019 as part a series of changes to the City Charter, allows voters to select up to five candidates in order of preference. To win, a candidate must receive more than 50% of the vote. If no candidate receives that when the results are first tallied, the candidate in last place is eliminated. Voters who selected that candidate as their first choice will have their second choice counted. This process repeats until there is a winner.

Early voting is set to start on Saturday in the 24th Council district that covers portions of Jamaica, Jamaica Hills and Hillside. The seat was left vacant last year when City Councilmember Rory Lancman resigned to take a job with the Cuomo administration.

There are eight candidates on the ballot, including six candidates of South Asian descent, one who is African American and one who is white, and previously held the seat.

Special Election Sample Ballot by Jen Carlson on Scribd

Singh Khakh said his organization has been out in the community training tenant leaders, visiting religious institutions, and even visiting senior centers, while adhering to the specific Covid-19 protocols. The group also held a candidate forum. One of the most striking aspects of this special election so far to him is the tone of the race.

“There hasn't been as much mudslinging as I would normally see, especially for a special election where things can get a little dirty,” Singh Khakh told Gothamist/WNYC, describing a friendlier campaign atmosphere, something proponents of the system say is a result of ranked-choice voting.

The city’s first foray into ranked-choice voting has not been without controversy. Last month, a group of City Council members and community groups filed a lawsuit to try to block its use. A judge denied that request; their appeal was also rejected. The parties will hold a status conference with the judge in State Supreme Court Friday morning, but it is unclear what if anything will emerge from it.

Councilmember I. Daneek Miller is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. His district in southeast Queens borders two vacant districts with impending special elections — the 24th and 31st. He remains concerned that there has not been enough voter education and outreach which could lead to voter suppression.

“How do you do that in the midst of Covid? What are the hard numbers?” said Miller. He said he recently attended a local training for ranked-choice voting that had 19 attendees compared to similar meetings in pre-Covid times that drew about 100 people.

The organizations that are mandated by the City Charter to do the public education around the new system, the Campaign Finance Board and the New York City Board of Elections, insist they are reaching out to thousands of voters.

The CFB has conducted training sessions for the general public via Zoom, along with training nearly 500 leaders from community based organizations that are training their own members. The BOE sent out a mailing targeted by zip code, is running ads in all the community newspapers and has created a series of short FAQ’s and a video in five languages.

For those still looking to learn more about the system, there will be online events held across the five boroughs as part of ranked-choice voting week of action starting on Monday, including training events in Queens conducted by Congresswoman Grace Meng and the Queens Borough President Donovan Richards.

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