Ranked-Choice Voting Allies And Foes Sound Off During Lengthy Hearing

In its first close-up since New York City’s chaotic primary election, ranked-choice voting sparked passionate debate on Monday, with opponents dominating several hours of invitation-only testimony at an Assembly hearing in Downtown Brooklyn while supporters staged an event nearby in favor of the voter-approved system.

Evaluation of ranked-choice voting, which faced skepticism from a small but vocal group of City Council members before its implementation this year, was tainted by a mistake made by the New York City Board of Elections which released incorrect preliminary ranked-choice voting results, accidentally including more than 130,000 test ballots in the total.

Supporters said the error had nothing to do with ranked-choice voting which they credited with helping candidates now expected to sit on the city’s first female-majority City Council and serve as the second-only Black mayor. They suggested critics didn’t want to talk about an overhaul of the Board of Elections because it could strip power from county party leaders, and the elected officials they support.

The only thing that both sides agree on is the debate over ranked-choice voting in New York City is far from over.

“We won’t let them take away the people’s voice and go back to the old system where costly, low turnout run-off elections actually disenfranchised people,” said Debbie Louis, lead organizer for Rank The Vote, an advocacy group working in support of ranked-choice voting, at a press conference outside the NAB Theatre at City Tech University.

“I just want to name the fact that criticism of the ranked-choice voting system is a veiled attack on expanding our democracy to the people who most need to be centered, to the people who have been left out and haven’t had the political capital and the political power needed to create a government that works for working class folks,” said Tiffany Cabán, the newly nominated candidate for the 22nd City Council district in western Queens.

She joined other newly nominated City Council candidates Crystal Hudson and Chi Ossé, along with leaders of 21-in-21 which sought to elect more women to the City Council, the New York Immigration Coalition, and the New Kings Democrats, a reform-minded political club, to urge state lawmakers to focus their energy on both improving ranked-choice voting and overhauling the the politically-controlled Board of Elections.

Inside the Assembly hearing

Inside the Assembly hearing Brigid Bergin / Gothamist

Inside the hearing, the conversation took a much different tone.

Council members I. Dankeek Miller and Selvena Brooks-Powers, whose neighboring districts cover southeast Queens and the Rockaways, offered testimony against the voting system. Miller was among the six City Council members who filed a lawsuit last winter seeking to halt the implementation of ranked-choice voting.

“What we saw in this primary here was precisely what we expected to see,” Miller said, “where there is a system where candidates are encouraged to collude for one reason or another.”

Miller pointed to the narrowing lead of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams from primary night to a couple of weeks later when ranked tallies showed Kathryn Garcia picked up additional support as people’s second- through fifth-choice candidate, ending less than one percentage point away from beating Adams. She was also the only leading candidate to actively campaign with a rival, teaming up with Andrew Yang in the final days of the election in what Garcia said was an effort to encourage voters to fill out their ballots by ranking multiple candidates.

Miller, who is term-limited at the end of this year, is also the sponsor of legislation that, if passed, would put another ballot referendum before voters in November, asking if they want to repeal ranked-choice voting from the city charter. A spokesperson for the Council Speaker’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the status of the bill, and whether Speaker Corey Johnson would bring it to the floor for a vote. The legislation is currently in committee.

The Assembly hearing came before the city Board of Elections has certified final primary results, or released voting data known as the “cast-vote record” which will show how many people officially made use of the ranked-choice voting system, where those voters are located, and if there is any indication that a community was adversely affected by how the system was administered or for lack of public education.

That did not stop Kirsten John Foy, a minister, civil rights activist and vocal opponent of ranked-choice voting, to argue the ranked-choice system had taken its toll on communities of color, describing its implementation as “rashed and rushed.”

“There is no rationale for in the midst of a global pandemic to stop our democracy on a dime and ask those who have been traumatized economically, politically, morally, those who have been traumatized physically, those who have been traumatized in every aspect of their lives to turn around and now become proficient in a convoluted, under-informed election system,” Foy said.

Election lawyer Esmeralda Simmons, who has worked for decades on issues of voting rights across the city, stressed her support for the system of ranked-choice voting, but she blasted the city’s BOE for how they went about administering the election, including releasing any preliminary ranked-choice voting results before all the eligible votes were returned.

“In the minds of many people, it became a horse race. And elections are not a horse race. We’re not waiting to see who’s ahead in the second lap. Who’s ahead in the third lap,” said Simmons “No, we wait until the end. And then we declare, or dare I say, certify a result,” she added. She stressed that Board staff told her the commissioners ordered them to release the preliminary data, which she said was the wrong approach. “That was an error, there’s no other word for it.”

Neither state nor city Board of Elections officials testified at the hearing. The state BOE did not respond to a request for comment. City BOE spokesperson Valerie Vasquez Diaz said the agency was not invited to the hearing until last Wednesday afternoon which did not give them enough time to adequately draft testimony.

“Staff is preparing to certify the election on Tuesday and commence the manual hand counts in two Council districts. We will provide written testimony after certification,” Vasquez Diaz said in a statement.

The Assembly is accepting public testimony through July 29th. The State Senate will hold its own hearing on how Boards of Elections function next Wednesday.