What Have We Learned About Ranked Choice Voting Elections So Far?

Brigid Bergin :: Gothamist

After four special elections in different parts of New York City, a small sample of voters have had their first taste of ranked choice voting. The system, adopted by voters in 2019, took effect at the start of this year and has its advocates and detractors. With nothing set to stop its broader implementation, a much wider pool of voters will use the new voting system in the upcoming citywide primary election in June. (Early voting runs June 12 - 20; Primary Day is June 22nd.)

Candidates, community groups, and government institutions like the New York City Board of Elections, and the New York City Campaign Finance Board are gearing up to inundate voters with information about how the system works.

“It's going to be an all hands on deck situation,” said Allie Swatek, director of policy and research at the CFB. “I think voters will have to do a lot of work to not hear about ranked choice voting in the next two months.” The voter education component of the process will be critical to ensure voters both know how to fill out their ballot and when to expect results after the polls close (spoiler alert: it won’t be on Primary night).

Here’s what we’ve learned so far about ranked-choice voting elections and what to expect ahead of June.

Voters say the ballots are easy enough to fill out, even if they didn’t know about ranked-choice voting when they went in to vote.

According to exit polls conducted by Edison Research on behalf of Common Cause New York and other proponents of ranked-choice voting, voters managed to figure it out fairly quickly. Of the 1,396 voters surveyed, 95% found the ballots easy to complete. Additionally, 75% of voters said they were familiar with the new system before they cast their ballot.

“That means 20% of our respondents were not aware of ranked-choice voting before they got to the polling place, and they still found the ballot to be clear and understandable. And that's what the goal is in good civic design,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York.

The candidates who led on primary night still won after all the tallies.

In all four of the special elections, in Council Districts 24 and 31 in Queens, and Districts 11 and 15 in the Bronx, the candidate who led the race on primary night ended up winning the race after multiple tallies. Lerner said based on data from other cities, that’s not an unusual outcome.

“At the end of the day, when you're leading in the first round with a less than 50% result, ranked-choice voting allows the winner to know that they come in with a broad base of support, whether they were the leader in the first round or not,” she said.

The possibility remains that a candidate who is not leading when polls close could win the race after subsequent tallies. Taking a close look at the results of the 15th Council district race in the Bronx, there was one round of voting where a candidate, Kenny Agosto, who was in last place, managed to move into the next round by beating his closest opponent, Altagracia Soldevilla, by just two votes.

If ranked-choice voting was supposed to force candidates to focus more explicitly on issues, the surge in super PACs and independent-expenditure groups has guaranteed the mud will keep slinging. In District 24, which held a special election on February 2nd, candidate Moumita Ahmed was targeted by a last minute ad blast by an IE called Common Sense NYC that sought to paint her as an anti-Semitic candidate in a district with a large Jewish community.

“They exploited people's fear of the other to divide us when in reality the policies my campaign put out were inclusive of everybody,” she told Gothamist / WNYC. They also spent heavily in favor of James Gennaro, the candidate who previously represented the district and who ultimately won the race.

With just two months before the primary, and more money pouring into all of these races, there’s likely to be more in the way of attacks without the coordinated fingerprints of candidates. Be ready for the noise.

Candidates and community groups are trying to work together to educate voters—it’s going to be a lot.

If this primary has felt like gentle ambient noise in the background of city life, it’s about to get really loud, really fast. Voters across the city will receive mailers from the New York City Board of Elections talking about ranked-choice voting, as well as two more from the CFB. Community groups are doing training sessions for speakers of different languages. Candidates are also teaming up with each other to talk about ranked-choice voting. Just this week the Working Families Party made a ranked-choice endorsement for mayor, offering extra incentive to teach voters about the process for their selected candidates: Scott Stringer, Dianne Morales and Maya Wiley. We will also be providing more information about the process between now and June.

Prepare yourself: we are not going to know who won the election on primary night.

Given the number of candidates running for city offices, it is very unlikely that there will be a clear winner when the polls close. Unless a candidate secures more than 50% of the vote in the first round, it will take subsequent rounds of counting to know who is the winner.

The city BOE currently waits until all ballots have been received before it begins the counting process. Absentee and military ballots can arrive up to a week after an election.

If a voter makes certain errors on their absentee ballot, such as forgetting to sign their envelope, the BOE is required to contact the voter and give them an opportunity to fix their ballot and avoid losing their vote. The so-called cure process also builds time into the counting process, if the BOE opts not to begin until all the ballots have arrived. Two winners of the recent special elections, City Councilmembers Selvena Brooks-Powers and Eric Dinowitz, argue in the NY Daily News that this process needs to be sped up.

“Across the country, Republicans are pushing false narratives about election security to justify racist voter suppression and put forward hundreds of new voting restrictions in 43 states. RCV gives our city the chance to expand democratic access, transform how campaigns are run, and set the standard for the rest of the country. But if we can’t run this smoothly—avoiding stacks of ballots from being hand-counted over weeks and months—we’ll only be giving the GOP fodder for their disinformation and lies,” they write.

The good news: once election officials begin subsequent rounds of counting, the process should move very quickly.

For the three special elections that required additional rounds of counting, the BOE counted ballots by hand. Each round involved sorting the ballots, counting the votes, and distributing them into bins labeled with each candidate’s name. That is not how officials expect to tally the results in June. The state Board of Elections is currently testing software known as the ranked-choice voting universal tabulator.

“The certification process is on schedule,” said Douglas Kellner, co-chair of the NYSBOE. “We expect that the final reports should be completed before the end of April.”

If the BOE sticks to its current policy, waiting for all the ballots to arrive to begin the ranked-counting, results may not be available for two to three weeks. (Yes, that’s in July.)

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