With six months until the June primary, there’s plenty of time for all voters to learn to rank their vote – applying something they do every day without thinking about it – to the election.
Starting next year, New York City voters will cast their votes in a new and more equitable way in primaries and special elections: ranked choice voting, where they can rank up to five candidates in order of preference, or simply vote for just one, just as they always have. This method gives voters more choice, while providing a more equitable path for candidates from Black, brown and low-income communities. New Yorkers agreed, which is why they passed ranked choice voting with nearly 75 percent of the vote last year in a ballot referendum.
Now, a lawsuit filed by several city lawmakers seeks to delay it, claiming that there’s been insufficient education to prepare voters for a citywide ranked choice voting election in June 2021. Two weeks ago, a judge correctly denied these lawmakers’ request for an immediate stop. The case, however, will still make its way through the court system and could be heard as early as this week.
Opponents say that voter turnout was low for the referendum, and therefore does not represent the true will of the people, with critics claiming further that ranked choice voting disenfranchises communities of color. This despite the fact that voters in majority Black, Latino, and Asian neighborhoods across the city supported ranked choice by overwhelming majorities. The fact is, we do not decide the validity of election results based on the size of the turnout.
Like all New Yorkers, people of color and those in immigrant communities want choices. In other cities, Black candidates have successfully run with ranked choice voting and diversified their city councils. Instead of arguing to delay, we have an opportunity to focus on educating voters about the new process.
A 2019 peer-reviewed study published in Social Science Quarterly analyzed survey data from five Bay Area cities: Berkeley, Oakland, San Leandro and San Francisco–and the comparable non-ranked choice voting cities of Alameda, Richmond, Stockton, Anaheim, Santa Ana and San Jose, California–to examine whether there are racial disparities in voter understanding. It found there were “no differences… between whites and people of color,” and there were “no differences in RCV cities in how whites, African Americans, and Latinx respondents reported understanding” the system.
I urge lawmakers who are concerned that there isn’t enough time and resources to get out the word to pass a bill that is before them, Int 1994-2020, to fully fund and robustly execute a public education campaign. Provisions in the bill include education materials in “designated citywide languages,” such as Spanish, Chinese, Bengali, Urdu and Russian, which would address a concern stated in the lawsuit about language barriers. As a first-generation Haitian American, I fully support these provisions. It is vitally important that voter education adequately address the needs of people in immigrant communities. Meanwhile, trainings and public forums are already taking place.
And those who doubt the ability of marginalized communities to get up to speed on a new voting process before the June 2021 primary need only to look to this year’s primary and general elections. We had record voter turnout during a pandemic, and successfully educated hundreds of thousands of voters on how to vote absentee and where to vote early. With six months until the June primary, there’s plenty of time for all voters to learn to rank their vote–applying something they do every day without thinking about it–to the election.
Empowering communities that face disenfranchisement and inequities has driven me throughout my career as a public servant and lawyer, and now as the chief operating officer of the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research. I know that ranked choice voting is an important tool for empowering New Yorkers. It’s time to move forward with this important advancement in our elections, not to delay it.
Rose Pierre-Louis is the former Manhattan Deputy Borough President. She serves on the executive board of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting NYC, as well as the board of Eleanor’s Legacy. She is the founder and chair of The Haitian Roundtable.