Women Running For City Council Challenge The Opposition To Ranked-Choice Voting

Brigid Bergin :: Gothamist

More than 20 women, predominantly women of color, sent an open letter to the members of the City Council on Monday urging them to avoid any measure that would delay the implementation of ranked-choice voting.

“We are mothers, carpenters, chiefs of staff, teachers, public defenders and nurses. And with the adoption of Ranked-Choice Voting in New York City, we’re hoping to add City Councilmember to that list,” they wrote in a letter that also advocates for a bill that would require the city to conduct a thorough public education campaign.

Voters approved ranked-choice voting [RCV] by 74% when it was proposed as a ballot question in the 2019 general election. The system, already used in cities like San Francisco and Minneapolis, allows voters to rank up to five candidates in city primaries and special elections. If no candidate pulls more than fifty percent of the vote on the first tally, the last place candidate is eliminated. Voters who chose that person will have their second choice votes distributed among the remaining field. That process is repeated until there is a winner.

The signatories argue the current winner take all system is to blame for the underrepresentation of women in the City Council, where they are just 13 of the 51 members. There are also no women elected to citywide office. They write that RCV stands to benefit women of color candidates, particularly in crowded races, because no one needs to worry that they will “steal” votes from each other.

The female candidates cite a study done by FairVote, an advocacy group that promotes the use of RCV, that found 11 California cities that used alternative vote systems, like RCV, saw an increase from 17.2% to 25.6% in candidates of color running for office.

With the first election set to use ranked-choice voting scheduled for February 2nd and with early voting starting on January 23rd, the fight over RCV continues to intensify. The race is considered a special election to fill the 24th City Council district in eastern Queens.

Following a week of vocal opposition to the new system, including a lawsuit that seeks to delay its implementation due to a lack of public education, proponents who supported the change are organizing a series of efforts to push back. They have their eye on the June primaries, when all the citywide races will be on the ballot along with more than 500 candidates for City Council.

“First and foremost, New Yorkers voted for this. Second of all, it expands democratic participation. It allows more people to discuss ideas and forces people to have to talk to everybody and not just talk to a particular base that they might have,” said Sandy Nurse, a City Council Candidate in Brooklyn who signed the letter.

Nurse, a community organizer and a carpenter, said she hoped ranked-choice voting would encourage more voter participation, citing the low turnout in New York city elections during non-presidential election years. “It seems like this is an opportunity to really do something pretty historic,” she said. “Particularly in a year where essentially the entire city government feels like it's up to being redefined.”

The letter was signed by a mix of first-time candidates and some progressives running for office a second time after losing a primary battle in the current system, including Tiffany Caban, who narrowly lost the primary for Queens District Attorney last year, and is now running for City Council; Amanda Farias, who challenged Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr. in the Bronx; and Nurse, who was knocked off the ballot earlier this year in her attempt to run for the City Council seat in Brooklyn now held by Darma Diaz, the handpicked candidate of the Kings County Democratic organization who won the seat this year after Rafael Espinal resigned.

But it’s not only women who are coming out in support of RCV. Supporters say RCV will allow voters to cast their ballot for the candidates whose ideas and values they support, without worrying about wasting their vote because the person is not backed by institutional support.

"Ranked-Choice Voting is a pro-voter reform that addresses the inequities that limit voters’ choices,” said Corey Ortega, former Executive Director to the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian (BLA) Caucus and candidate for City Council in Upper Manhattan. “RCV means you can vote for the candidates you support and who you believe would best represent you, not against the candidate or political machine you oppose. RCV means that the winner will be chosen by the majority of the district, which, in a majority minority district like mine, is vital.”

Asked about the pushback, Councilmember Adrienne Adams, who is the current co-chair of the BLA Caucus and a party to the lawsuit filed last week, said the candidates’ perspective was not surprising. “RCV was sold in part on the premise that it creates a more level playing field and discourages negative campaigning among candidates,” Adams told Gothamist/WNYC. “My issue is the lack of mandated voter education regarding the new system.”

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