City Council approves plan to replace Rikers + Ranked Choice Voting In-Depth

Local News

  • The City Council approved an $8 billion plan to close Rikers and replace it with four smaller jails by 2026. No New Jails protesters attended the Council meeting to push legislators to consider closing Rikers and not build new jails to replace it. The next day, a coalition of activists and elected officials convened at City Hall to call attention to the shortcomings of the plan and demand a new deal that addresses homelessness.
  • The State Senate held a hearing on 50-a of the New York Civil Rights Law, which deems police personnel records confidential. Ahead of the hearing Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD clarified they do not support a full repeal of the law.
  • In response to unending meddling from the Cuomo administration and potential looming service cuts, NYC Transit Authority Chief Andy Byford quietly submitted a resignation letter to the MTA last week, but apparently reconsidered after being begged to stay by colleagues.
  • New York City School Chancellor Richard Carranza unveiled the details of new standardized tests that will be administered this year at 76 City schools deemed to be low-performing by the State.
  • The New York State Board of Elections will be in court on Tuesday, facing allegations that it is violating the National Voter Registration Act by making it too easy to remove names from the list of “active” voters used at poll sites. This practice often leads to voters using problematic affidavit ballots, or becoming disenfranchised entirely.
  • State Senator Brian Benjamin, a Democrat whose district includes Harlem, Washington Heights and the Upper West Side, introduced a plan to offer tax relief to New Yorkers who pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent. 
  • While discussing discrimination faced by Italian Americans in the past, Governor Cuomo said the n-word during a radio broadcast.

Elections

  • At his Queens campaign rally, which drew roughly 26,000 people, Senator Bernie Sanders rolled out endorsements from a slate of New York politicians, including DSA-endorsed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and State Senator Julia Salazar (Bushwick). Also endorsing Sanders were State Senators Jessica Ramos (Jackson Heights), Michael Gianaris (Astoria), and James Sanders Jr. (Richmond Hill), Assembly Member Ron Kim (Flushing), and City Council Member Rafael Espinal (Brownsville).
  • Even as a 2020 progressive slate challenging state legislative incumbents begins to materialize across the City, State Senator Mike Gianaris (District 12, Western Queens) will face a right-wing challenge in next June’s primary from Justin Potter, an LIC resident who switched his party registration from Republican to Democrat in February.

In Depth: Ballot Question 1: Ranked Choice Voting

On November 4, New Yorkers will vote on five ballot questions that, if approved, will amend the City Charter. The first question pertains to elections, and most notably proposes a new system of voting in City elections called Ranked Choice Voting (RCV).

The Nuts and Bolts of Ranked Choice Voting

Currently, New York City elections operate on a “first past the post” system, where each voter casts a single vote, and the candidate in the field with the most votes wins. For most city races, the candidate with the most votes wins, no matter what percentage of the vote they earned. For the citywide positions of Mayor, Comptroller, and Public Advocate, if no candidate receives at least 40 percent of the vote then a runoff election is held to determine the winner.

If the first ballot proposal were to be adopted, this system would be replaced by Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) in primaries and special elections (but not general elections). Under RCV, instead of selecting just one candidate, voters would have the option of ranking up to five candidates in order of their preference. If no candidate receives a majority after counting every ballot’s first choice, the last place candidate is eliminated, and all their votes are reallocated to the second ranked candidate on those ballots. This process repeats until only two candidates remain, at which point the candidate with the most votes wins. In this manner, RCV performs an “instant runoff” of all the candidates, without requiring a new election to be held.

Other Parts of Ballot Question 1

In addition to RCV, the first ballot proposal would make other changes to the city’s election process. It would extend the time between when a vacancy occurs and when a special election is held from 45 days to 80 days. Critics of the current process noted that the short timeline currently gives candidates only six weeks to declare, gather petitions, raise money, and campaign, which could be a factor in persistently low turnout in special elections.

The proposal would also amend the city’s redistricting process so the City Council district boundaries are finalized before candidates must gather petitions to appear on the ballot.

Arguments In Favor

The recent Public Advocate election potentially illustrates thebenefits of RCV. Due to the peculiarities of this special election, the winner was not required to win at least 40 percent of the vote in this instance, so RCV would not have prevented a potential runoff. However, it would have ensured the winner would have earned the support of a majority of voters, and in doing so, arguably better reflect the electorate.

Given the high number of Public Advocate candidates  who were running as liberals or progressives, while Republicans had coalesced around Queens Council Member Eric Ulrich, there was pressure on voters to not split the vote. For more left leaning voters, this meant identifying the leftmost candidate with a viable campaign. For more liberal or centrist democrats, there was even concern that vote splitting could even lead to a rare Republican citywide victory.

In the end, Jumaane Williams beat out 16 other candidates with only 33 percent of the vote, and Ulrich finishing second with 19 percent. With RCV, the vote tally would have looked very different. Ulrich almost certainly would not have been as competitive, as votes for eliminated liberals and progressives would likely have been allocated to other liberals and progressives. Baseline voter behavior might have changed as well: Voters that might have tactically consolidated around a candidate would have license to rank their ballot according to their true preference. “If a voter had all these options but, for example, heard that Jumaane was the progressive candidate,” said a Charter Revision spokesperson, “RCV would let them vote their preference without feeling the pressure they might split the progressive vote,”

By eliminating runoff elections, RCV can not only save costs, but potentially improve the representation of the electorate as well. In New York, voter turnout drops off dramatically for runoff elections, and the demographics of runoff electorates tend to be less racially and ethnically diverse, as well as older. Runoff elections can also be cumbersome for absentee voters and voters with disabilities. RCV would ensure that the entire electorate that cast a ballot in a single election would participate in an instant runoff and have their preferences adequately counted.

Political Context

RCV is a popular idea among good governance groups and has a generally progressive, yet wonky lean. Vox published a piece touting the merits of RCV, and notably included that the system made elections less “nasty” when it was instituted in San Francisco and Maine, because candidates are incentivized to play nice with other campaigns in hopes of receiving secondary support from their supporters. For leftist candidates seeking to more radically critique life under capitalism, this might be a less appealing feature.

In New York, RCV seems to have arrived due to activism from good governance groups such as FairVote, which is cited heavily in the Charter Revision Commission’s final report. “This is the ballot question we received the most outside activism on,” said a Charter Revision Commission spokesperson. And the proposal does not seem to be claimed by a particular faction, but rather enjoying surprisingly broad support across the political spectrum. “Almost every Commissioner was positive on this question from the get go,” continued the Commission spokesperson, “…it wasn’t a particular person’s pet project.”

Caveats

RCV likely won’t expedite a big ideological shift in New York City elections. If approved as part of ballot question #1, RCV would only affect primary elections for City office – campaigns like recent NYC DSA-endorsees Marcela Mitaynes, Boris Santos, Phara Souffrant, and Jabari Brisport for state office would not use RCV.

Recent City elections involving NYC DSA candidates also may depict a limited impact of RCV. The two challenges to Council Member Laurie Cumbo in 2017 were rather straightforward contests: a two person contest in the Democratic primary, and then a general election against NYC DSA’s Jabari Brisport. With only two main candidates in each race, a ranked choice voting system would not have changed the fundamentals of the race where establishment support was behind an incumbent. In 2021, a large amount of open City Council seats will be contested as incumbents hit their term limits. Any NYC-DSA candidates running will be facing a different kind of primary dynamic, with RCV as an additional new wrinkle if ballot question #1 is approved this November.

On the whole, RCV does not present an inherent boon to leftist candidacies – only good organizing can. Advocates point to streamlined primary elections, less tactical voting, and more representative electorates as worthwhile reforms. How it might affect who wins in New York elections, however, remains to be seen.

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