Election Reformers Love Ranked-Choice Voting, but NYC Immigrants See Doom

A voter drops his absentee ballot into a box on the last day of early voting Nov. 1, 2020, at Columbia University’s Forum in the West Harlem, New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) — New York City’s multinational communities have long been inextricable from the city’s character, affording the Big Apple its reputation as a city of immigrants. 

Some of those communities, particularly wherein English proficiency is limited, now say they are being left behind in the Board of Elections’ plans to implement ranked-choice voting, a system that lets voters choose multiple candidates in order of preference. 

Late Tuesday night, these groups teamed up with local politicians in a complaint that asks the Manhattan Supreme Court to block the recently approved voting structure change they say will further disenfranchise voters.

Community organizations filing the suit include those representing voters who primarily speak Spanish, Russian, Polish, Chinese, Cantonese and Bengali. They are joined by City Council Members Adrienne E. Adams, Robert E. Cornegy Jr., Laurie A. Cumbo and I. Daneek Miller, all members of the council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus. 

The 22-page complaint accuses the BoE of violating city charter requirements to implement ranked-choice voting in a timely manner, while also contending that the city’s software is not up to snuff and that changes of this nature should not be contemplated during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Paired with a failure to educate people on ranked-choice voting, the BLA Caucus says New Yorkers of color, seniors and those who speak limited English are among 5 million voters in danger of disenfranchisement. 

“When it became apparent that the Covid-19 pandemic would constrain its ability to enable a ‘robust voter education plan’ for this new and complex system, the city should have accelerated the pace of its efforts to execute its public outreach plan,” the BLA Caucus said in a statement Monday, on the heels of a six-hour City Council hearing about ranked-choice voting. 

“Instead, we are witnessing an eleventh-hour game of catch-up that may have already imperiled efforts to reach military absentee and special election voters.” 

New Yorkers voted in 2019 to pass the amendment allowing ranked-choice voting, or instant runoff voting, which allows participants to choose multiple candidates in order of their preference. If one candidate wins an outright majority of first-preference votes, that individual is be declared the winner; if not, a runoff is set in motion. 

In the runoff, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated, which raises those voters’ second-preference choice to first. Then, votes are retallied to determine if a candidate has won an outright majority. The process is repeated until there is a winner. 

The switch to ranked-choice voting in New York, which passed with more than 73% of the vote, is set to be enacted for primary and special elections beginning in 2021. 

Proponents of the new system include former presidential hopeful Andrew Yang, who expressed enthusiasm last year over having the option on the ballot. 

“Just voted here in New York — Ranked Choice Voting is on the ballot!” Yang tweeted in November 2019. “Ranked choice voting would let us express our true preferences and make our politics more dynamic and responsive. We should make it the norm throughout the country.”

Maine is the only state to have implemented the system statewide, but around two dozen cities have used ranked-choice voting, including San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis and St. Paul.

As the plaintiffs contend, however, the program is not ready for New York, which would be the most populous jurisdiction to embrace it.

Ranked-choice voting “requires voters to be informed and to be informed on a larger and much more in-depth scale,” and if it is allowed to proceed, the existing program “will deprive New York City’s limited-English proficient (LEP) population of the right to vote for and elect candidates of their choice,” according to the complaint. Representing the plaintiffs are the firms Abrams Fensterman and Aidala Bertuna.

The 22-page complaint cites a 2019 study that found voters in ranked-choice voting cities are more likely to report that instructions were “very or somewhat difficult” to understand, compared with voters in plurality-voting systems. 

Plaintiffs also claim the City Board’s director had a conflict of interest with a voting-machine vendor and failed to disclose gifts from the company that has charged the city $43 million for ballot scanners and other services since 2009. 

The BOE did not return a call requesting comment. 

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