Politico

Top mayoral candidate admonishes new voting system amidst efforts to delay it


A leading mayoral candidate has joined a growing movement to stall the debut of a ballot system that ranks political candidates, warning it will “disenfranchise” Black and Latino voters and rests in the hands of a notoriously dysfunctional election board.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams admonished the implementation of so-called ranked-choice voting this week, just as he was preparing to announce his own bid to succeed Bill de Blasio as New York City mayor.

“Everyone knows that every layer you put in place in the process, you lose Black and brown voters and participation,” Adams said in an interview on Tuesday. “We can’t disenfranchise those voters.”

An initial supporter of the policy, which voters overwhelmingly supported in 2019, Adams expressed a change of heart just as lawmakers contemplate legislation to halt it and a civil rights organization considers legal action. Many who opposed the change after it was proposed last year are now citing the pandemic and the city Board of Elections’ perpetual blunders as rationales for delay.

Some opponents are aligned with the city’s Democratic party machines, whose power over municipal elections would likely be diminished by ranked-choice voting, wherein voters list candidates in order of preference rather than picking a single one.

Adams lambasted the Board of Elections for slow-walking voter education efforts around the new policy — though one official involved in the rollout defended plans to wait until the 2020 presidential election concluded to begin outreach, so as not to confuse voters.

“The more barriers and layers you put in place, you’re going to hurt those who have English as a second language and those who are coming from minority communities,” Adams said.

Ranked-choice voting has long been a goal of government reform groups who believe it would discourage negative campaigning while avoiding both low-turnout runoffs and electing candidates who win with only a small group of voters. Supporters say studies from California have demonstrated that ranked-choice voting boosts the chances of nonwhite candidates.

Come next year, New Yorkers will be able to rank up to five people in city primaries. If none receives more than 50 percent, the last-place finisher is disqualified and voters who picked that person will have their next choice counted. The rankings continue until a winner is declared.

A commission called by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to study the City Charter concluded last year the policy would eliminate the effect of spoiler races while encouraging candidates to campaign beyond their aspired base in order to achieve second-place status.

Johnson was a mayoral candidate at the time, and people close to him say he believed it would help his candidacy.

“It’s clear that New Yorkers are hungry for a more inclusive democracy, and disaffected communities in particular can really be empowered by their vote in a ranked-choice voting election,” Rose Pierre-Louis, who sits on the executive board of the Committee for Ranked-Choice Voting NYC, said in a prepared statement.

Pierre-Louis also supports the candidacy of City Comptroller Scott Stringer, whose strategy for victory relies on the novel voting system.

She predicted voters would be able to adjust in time for the mayoral primary next June, just as they did for the advent of early voting this month, and urged the city not to delay.

However, several plans are in the works to push back the rollout of ranked-choice voting, which is set to take effect in an off-cycle election for a City Council seat in February.

The City Council’s Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus is now asking Johnson to “indefinitely defer” introducing the voting system, arguing the Board of Elections is unable to manage the rollout in time, according to a previously unreported letter signed by 15 members of the group and sent to Johnson Friday.

“We have no confidence in BOE’s ability to acclimate voters to a system of Ranked-Choice Voting’s scale and complexity, particularly within a compressed timeframe already constrained by the pandemic, given its abysmal record of performance,” the co-chairs, I. Daneek Miller and Adrienne Adams, wrote. Both represent Southeast Queens, an area that is rich in committed voters and one Eric Adams has been courting for years.

The letter accuses the board of “embarrassing incidents that many New Yorkers of color rightly perceive as akin to voter suppression,” namely a series of screw-ups in the delivery of absentee ballots this fall and hours-long waits at polling sites open for early voters. Senior citizens and people with disabilities were at times given “confusing guidance” from poll workers, they said.

Miller said he is pushing the speaker to introduce legislation to delay the rollout. He reasoned it would be similar in structure to the Council’s 2008 bill to overturn term limits, which voters had approved in a prior ballot referendum.

Despite spearheading the initiative, Johnson declined to comment on the effort to delay it.

Others who take umbrage with ranked-choice voting are weighing the possibility of legal action.

Kirsten John Foy, who founded the civil rights organization Arc of Justice and previously worked for Rev. Al Sharpton, is among those looking into filing a lawsuit.

“This is the wrong environment to be upending a known, reliable system — although imperfect — with an unknown, untested and consequently unreliable system,” Foy said in an interview.

He called arguments that ranked-choice voting helps Black and Latino candidates “a shell game” and said the policy would encourage candidates to focus more on the horse race of politics.

“If somebody is elected who did not enjoy majority support, how do you justify that?” he added.

A lawsuit would likely invoke the federal Voting Rights Act and argue that candidates preferred by communities of color fare worse under the new system, effectively diluting their votes, according to Mark Peters, an attorney who has been approached by Foy and sits on his board. These types of legal actions typically involve months of preparation and detailed studies of past elections here or in other cities where ranked-choice is already used, like San Francisco, which elected its first Black female mayor with this system.

Ranked-choice would weaken the power of political parties, which appoint the city’s 10 Board of Elections commissioners and play a role in controlling the outcomes of local elections. They often select party loyalists to run for office, help fund their campaigns and are known to try to kick opponents off the ballot.

It is not lost on the county machines that this would weaken their hold over the process.

“From my perspective it is done to undermine the party system,” Patrick Jenkins, a political consultant with ties to the Bronx and Queens Democratic parties, said in a recent interview.

“African-Americans have struggled in this city, have been the backbone of the Democratic party and we have worked hard to achieve through the party structure representation and equality,” he said. “We spent all these years trying to play by the rules.”

Four of the city’s five Democratic organizations are run by Black lawmakers, the result of decades of political loyalty among voters who often determine outcomes in city races.

Some Black candidates questioned Jenkins’ argument.

“They are using race as a narrative to try to muddle up the reality, which is that this is a benefit to voters, candidates of color and candidates who are anti-establishment,” said Brandon West, a Democratic Socialists of America-backed candidate for City Council.

Stringer unequivocally disagreed with moves to halt it.

“Is he in favor of supporting a reform measure that the voters already passed? You bet,” Stringer spokesperson Tyrone Stevens said.

Another mayoral candidate, Maya Wiley, has been a vocal proponent of the policy, along with a laundry list of local officials.

The Board of Elections says its machines can handle the new voting system, and this week issued a solicitation for contractors who could provide software to automatically tabulate votes. The board expects to formalize that contract in January.

Despite concerns that the city lacks sufficient time to educate voters and candidates, outreach has already begun.

Rank the Vote NYC, an umbrella organization, has conducted more than 20 training sessions for candidates and staff. Another outreach service will begin educating voters on Dec. 2.

The city’s Campaign Finance Board, which is required to conduct voter outreach, said it is on schedule.

“Voting in 2020 was confusing enough for voters. Adding an educational campaign about ranked-choice voting, which only applies to municipal elections beginning in 2021, would have just added more confusion,” Matt Sollars, spokesperson for the finance board, said in a statement.

Shaun Donovan, who is running for mayor, incorporated ranked-choice voting into a 29-page campaign pitch he’s circulated to potential supporters, which reads: “Shaun’s broad appeal makes him a natural 2nd and 3rd choice for voters, even when they are already committed to another candidate.”

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