This is a special edition of Epicenter-NYC because these are special times and special elections loom.
If the events of this week on Capitol Hill outraged you, we implore you to pay attention to what’s happening in your own backyard. And to shift focus from election past to elections future — many, many of them. This will be the first of occasional single-focus newsletters on the upcoming races in New York City. As always, let us know what you want to see: email@example.com.
We thought we could start by walking you through how to fill out your ballot. This year, for the first time ever, New Yorkers will vote by ranking their candidates.
We zoom in on District 24 in Queens (that’s Kew Gardens Hills, Briarwood, Utopia, Jamaica, Jamaica Estates, Fresh Meadows and Pomonok) to make understanding this a bit easier. The district votes in a special election on Feb. 2, the first using Ranked Choice Voting. There are subsequent elections in February and March that we will dive into later. Special elections suffer from low turnout so we’re trying to do our part to help you do yours!
What is Ranked Choice Voting?
Ranked Choice Voting, known as RCV, is a system of voting that identifies the candidate that is most preferred by all voters, as opposed to the candidate that simply received the most votes. In order to win, a candidate must receive the majority of votes, so 50% plus one. This is opposed to a plurality voting system — the system typically used in the United States — where each voter gets one vote, often resulting in candidates being elected without receiving the majority of votes.
While RCV is new for us — New Yorkers voted to implement it in 2019 — it’s used around the country. Maine used it for the 2020 presidential election, and many cities, including San Francisco, Santa Fe and Minneapolis, use it for local elections. For now, RCV will only be used for special and primary elections in New York City.
How exactly does it work?
In New York City, RCV allows you to vote for up to five candidates, including one write-in. Candidates are listed on the ballot in the order that they registered their candidacy.
Once votes are tallied for voters’ first-choice candidates, if none of them received a majority of votes, the candidate that received the fewest votes is removed, and the people who voted for that candidate have their second choice vote spread among the remaining candidates. This process continues until a candidate receives a majority of the votes.
What are the benefits of RCV?
Besides the fact that RCV elects the candidate with the most support, unlike a plurality voting system, it does not lead to runoff elections, which are costly and generally have much lower voter turnout. It also discourages “attack style” campaigning, and encourages candidates to work together. For example, Candidate A could campaign to Candidate B’s supporters in an effort to be listed as their second choice.
Do you have to vote for five candidates?
While you can — and should — vote for five candidates, you will not be penalized if you vote for fewer. However, if you only vote for one candidate, it’s more likely that your ballot will be “exhausted,” meaning that candidate did not receive enough votes to move on to the next level, and your vote no longer counts toward the total.
Mistakes to avoid:
Because this is a new style of voting for us, it’s important to pay attention when filling out the ballot. If you accidentally skip a row — say, you leave your second choice candidate blank — the machines will likely be able to correct for that. What will invalidate your ballot is if you forget to mark your first choice candidate, if you skip more than one ranking (say you forget to fill out your second and third choices) or if you rank more than one candidate per column (i.e. you select two candidates as your first choice).
INCORRECT: No first choice marked
INCORRECT: Two first choices marked
CORRECT: Choices 1-5 all marked
It’s kind of like a pizza: Imagine 16 people are ordering a (giant) pizza to share, and the options are plain, pepperoni or mushroom. People are asked to rank their preferences. If seven people ranked cheese as their first choice, five people selected pepperoni and four people selected mushroom, none received the majority. Since mushroom received the fewest votes, it is removed, and the mushroom lovers’ second-choice votes are redistributed to plain and pepperoni. Let’s say two of them selected pepperoni as their second choice, bringing it to seven votes, and two selected plain as their second choice, bringing it to nine votes. Nine votes give plain the majority, making it the winner.
District 24, where’s that again? Here’s the map, taken from the website of one candidate.
We’ve seen highly crowded and competitive races at national and local levels. That can make debates feel incredibly chaotic and confusing. Perhaps a voter emerges loving three people, or feeling really strongly that a certain ethnic group or, say, a woman wins. Ranked Choice Voting does help that voter. You can see in the debate below that, in many cases, candidates end up agreeing with each other and picking up on each other’s points instead of actively “debating.”
Here’s the debate the candidates in District 24 held last month, sponsored by Bangladeshi Americans for Political Progress. Past Councilman James Gennaro was not in attendance due to a last-minute family emergency. One basic question asked here should be mandatory in every debate: “Do you live in the district?” We are trying to arrange another debate so please stay tuned.
What questions would you like them to answer? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Some broader trends to be aware of, playing out in this district and way beyond:
Identity politics. As we told you Tuesday, four Bangladeshis and six (!) South Asians are running. This means that they are courting their ethnic bloc for a vote but must court many, many others. It also puts Bangladeshis in the district in the predicament of intimately knowing many of the candidates and having to choose (awkward dinner party conversation). We expect to see this dynamic play out across the city in crowded races: neighbor vs. neighbor.
I’ll be back? An incumbent is running … again. But what about term limits you say? James Gennaro served this district in City Council for more than 10 years. In 2013, he stepped down when new term limits kicked in. But he’s still allowed to run again. Will the name recognition among constituents be enough to redeem this tactic? Or do a large number of competitors, ranked choice voting and the fact that it’s a special election (all about turnout) change the game entirely? Rest assured, there will be new blood in 2022. 35 of 51 council seats are open.
Early voting is here to stay. Given the surge of cases and New Yorkers’ growing comfort with mail-in ballots and early voting, this trend will continue, at least for this special election. District 24 residents have until Jan. 26 to request an absentee ballot.
Going global. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a New York City Council member needs to have a grasp of foreign policy. But diverse fields of candidates yield diverse voters who care about a diverse set of issues. In the District 24 debate, for example, candidates were asked about farmer protests in India. These should not be dismissed as nonsequiturs, rather a pulse on how “all politics being local” in a borough like Queens means being global, too.
Define left. Candidates cite defunding the police, the Green New Deal, saying “Black Lives Matter” vs “all lives matter” to distinguish themselves as progressives. This is a tricky game in New York, where everyone’s (you know what we mean) liberal but defines it differently. The New York City Democractic Socialists have only endorsed six candidates so far.
Indeed, endorsements matter more than ever. This is partly because of the pandemic making traditional campaigning (rallies, subway leaflets, door-to-door, restaurant signage) near impossible. But also these are crowded races, attracting between a half-dozen and dozen candidates. It’s a lot to ask voters to distinguish among their choices so endorsements from organizations, other politicians, even celebrities (we see you, Spike Lee) are being used to break through. Read on, though, to see how some groups might be able to endorse more than one candidate because….
Ranked Choice Voting is the big thing. We return to this theme, the single most important thing about these elections that we wanted to get a headstart on trying to explain. But it also changes how politicians campaign and form potential coalitions among each other. Check out 21 in 21, a nonprofit launched by former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Elizabeth Crowley, that will not only endorse candidates but also issue ranked endorsements. That means the group will suggest what your ballot should look like for each district, favoring women candidates.
What do you want to know? Please get in touch. Democracy needs you more than ever.
This newsletter was written by Danielle Hyams and S. Mitra Kalita and designed by Nitin Mukul. Did you like it or find it useful? Tell a friend to sign up. Support our vendors, freelancers and efforts by making a donation to our tip jar.
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