Opponents of ranked-choice voting were dealt a major setback in State Supreme Court in Manhattan on Wednesday when a judge denied their request to block its use in an upcoming special City Council election next year.
The new voting system allows New York City voters to pick up to five candidates in primary and special elections in order of preference, and tallies results so that the winner is only declared when a person has more than 50% of the vote. The special election set for February 2nd is to fill a vacant seat in the 24th City Council district in eastern Queens, with early voting scheduled to run from January 23rd - 31st.
In a succinct three-page decision, Justice Carol Edmead made clear it was the imminent mailing of military ballots scheduled to go out this Friday that persuaded her from ordering any relief that could inadvertently disenfranchise those overseas voters.
“This Court is disinclined to take any action that may result in the disenfranchisement of even one voter or take any action that may result in even one voter’s ballot being nullified,” Justice Edmead wrote, emphasis hers.
With hundreds of candidates facing primary contests next year, this late-stage battle over ranked-choice voting, which voters approved by 74% percent in a 2019 ballot question, boils down to a plea to keep an electoral system that parties and political operators know and understand, versus upending that system in favor of a process where the outcome becomes much more unpredictable.
Opponents insist the city has not done enough to prepare voters to make this switch and are casting doubts on the abilities of the New York City Campaign Finance Board and New York City Board of Elections to educate voters and execute an election with ranked-choice voting. Those potential failures, they say, will lead to voter suppression in communities of color and among voters with limited English proficiency.
Proponents dispute those allegations, pointing to how women and candidates of color have successfully run in elections using ranked-choice voting in other parts of the country, including San Francisco and Minneappolis. They also say opponents are acting as proxies for county leaders and political machines who view this new system as a threat to their already limited power, as a tide of reform candidates challenge incumbents across the city.
Frank Carone, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, who is also counsel to the Kings County Democrats, said he planned to file an appeal.
“Although we did not get to the substantive merits, the Court was clearly concerned about the timing to mail overseas ballots to our service men and women,” said Carone.But what is now clearly apparent is that there has been a serious failure to comply with the requirements of the Charter and State law, that our application was clearly timely, since it was only revealed last week that the City had not done what it was required to do, and that we will seek relief in the Appellate Division.”
Still supporters of ranked-choice voting saw this decision as reason for celebration.
“It just feels a little auspicious,” Moumita Ahmed, a candidate in the upcoming special election for the 24th City Council district, told Gothamist / WNYC. As a Bangldeshi-American, she noted how the decision came on Victory Day, a national holiday commemorating Bangladeshi independence. She is running for office along with five other Bangldeshi-Americans to secure representation for the community here, hoping that one of them becomes the first south Asian to be elected to the Council.
Supporters of ranked-choice voting say the system helps candidates of color in crowded races because no one needs to worry about “stealing” someone else’s vote, since candidates can still benefit if they are ranked a voter’s second or third choice depending on how many tallies it takes for one candidate to reach more than 50%.
“There are 66,000 of us in Queens. We’re the folks that are serving you coffee at Dunkin Donuts, or the folks that are driving you to work or home from a party, driving the Lyft and the cabs. We’re the ones that are in the Halaal cars making your food. And we don't have representation,” said Ahmed. She added, “Ranked-choice voting is literally the only way our voices can matter, can be heard.”
The only other candidate in the special election is James Gennaro, a former City Councilmember who was term-limited after three terms in 2013.
Two lawyers sought to intervene in the case on behalf of Ahmed and other candidates who support ranked-choice voting. J. Remy Green, one of her attorneys, said Justice Edmead made clear that she would support remedies designed to improve the likelihood that ranked-choice voting worked successfully, but that the lawyers for the plaintiffs were not interested in that.
“It's not a secret that the New York City Board of Elections is completely incompetent. That's not that's not a surprise to anyone,” said Green. “But the remedy for that incompetence is not throwing out a choice of the voters to adopt ranked-choice voting.”