In 2019, 70% of voters in New York City approved a ballot measure that would implement ranked-choice voting — which allowed voters to rank up to five candidates in order of preference — to decide primary and special elections for the offices of mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough presidents and City Council that took place in June.
But following a series of counting errors during the June 22 primary, criticisms of how the city Board of Elections (BOE) failed to educate voters on ranked-choice voting (RCV) and potential legislation calling for a repeal of ranked-choice voting — lawmakers are now discussing the future of RCV in its local elections.
On July 19, the state Assembly Elections Committee heard testimonies regarding the city’s first rollout of ranked-choice voting where feedback was divided on who or what was to blame for errors during the June primary.
For some, flaws and errors were the fault of the city Board of Elections’ management of ranked-choice voting and its failure to educate NYC voters in the months prior to the primary
During the hearing, Esmeralda Simmons, a civil rights attorney and executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, said that the BOE failed to instruct voters and its own elections officials on the ranked-choice voting system.
Simmons took particular issue with an error that led to a discount of 135,000 test ballots that temporarily resulting in a large discrepancy in the Democratic mayoral primary vote counts on June 29.
The city’s voting software includes Cast Voter Records (CVR) which produces ballot images that ultimately tabulates unofficial race results.
In a now-deleted June 29 statement on Twitter acknowledging a counting error, the city BOE stated that during the first extraction of tallies from the CVR, both test and election results were pulled.
In a clarification on June 29, the board said human error led to the discrepancy stemming from pre-election testing that was not cleared from the file used for the initial ranked-choice tally. The tallies were removed, according to the board, before results were posted on Wednesday.
“Everyone knows that you cannot get a result if you don’t put the data in,” Simmons said. “It was an error. It should’ve never happened.”
But Simmons also praised the work done by local community groups in spreading the word.
“That’s because New Yorkers are smart, and if somebody tells them that they can have five bites of the apple, then most people will take five bites,” Simmons said. “Some people are used to only taking one bite and only take one bite, but I bet you the second time [ranked-choice voting] goes around … they’re going to take five bites.”
Assembly Elections Committee members like Democratic Assemblyman Robert Carroll, of Brooklyn, said that the issues and errors that transpired during the June primary election were a result of the BOE’s incompetence.
“The problem with June’s primary election was not ranked-choice voting,” said Carroll. “It was the incompetence of the Board of Elections.”
Carroll said that the formation of a non-partisan Board of Elections would go a long way in “curing the ills” of election mismanagement on a local level.
In exit polls conducted by Common Cause and Rank the Vote NYC, 78% of the nearly 1,700 Democratic voters surveyed said they understood ranked-choice voting “extremely or very well.”
An analysis of the 2021 mayoral primary results from Citizens Union released Monday found that just under 15% of voters across the city had a ballot that didn’t affect the final round of the Democratic primary.
The report concluded that compared to the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary, voters may have had a more direct influence in the results of the 2021 Democratic mayoral primary.
In 2013, roughly 33% of voters cast their ballots for candidates who were not among the top two vote-getters.
In 2021, only 140,167 voters – or 14.9% – did not participate in the final round of RCV, meaning they did not include eventual winner Eric Adams or runner-up Kathryn Garcia in their ranked ballots.
But for others, ranked-choice voting is a system that leads to voter suppression through invalid or underwritten ballots.
“It is sophisticated voter suppression, but it’s still voter suppression,” said Rev. Kirsten John Foy, founder of the Arc of Justice. “What played out on Election Day as I observed and members of my organization, I believe, was the anticipated result of a nefarious, intentional plan to dilute the vote of African Americans.”
City Councilman I. Daneek Miller, a Democrat who also co-chairs the New York City Council Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus, said that the ranked-choice rollout effort didn’t reach certain communities such as seniors, non-English speakers and people without internet access.
Most voters surveyed indicated they ranked at least three candidates in the mayoral primary, and 95% of voters surveyed found the ballot simple to complete — findings that held true across ethnic groups.
Miller is also sponsoring a bill that would repeal ranked-choice voting from the City Charter and put it up to a new vote in November.
Advocates of ranked-choice voting said that the system met its designed goal of “building coalitions” and producing a more democratic election.
“The fact is that ranked-choice voting has delivered on its promise to bring about a more democratic election,” said Debbie Louis, the deputy organizing director of Rank the Vote NYC. “It’s insulting that our lawmakers, some of our candidates, people opposing RCV are saying that, pretty much, Black people or people of color are stupid and we don’t understand RCV.”
Data from Citizens Union showed that the number of candidates doubled in 2021 from 2013, with 372 people running for local office this year, compared to 172 in the last large competitive city election.
Additionally, more women and people of color – around 35 Democratic primary winners who identified as people of color – won their respective races.
The Board of Elections has not publicly released any official data on ballot counts. Representatives from the Board of Election were not present during the hearing, despite being invited to testify.
The state Senate plans to hold a separate hearing next week solely on the state Board of Elections.
Reach Robbie Sequeira at firstname.lastname@example.org