Organizers Tried to Educate New Yorkers about Ranked Choice Voting. Did They Succeed?

Primary Election Day at P.S. 249 in Flatbush on June 22, 2021. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Lurie Daniel Favors has been apprehensive about ranked-choice voting for nearly two years. As the executive director at the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, she is forever thinking about the civil rights and civic participation of Black New Yorkers. Daniel Favors led a team that partnered with organizations such as Rank the Vote NYC to provide community education on ranked choice throughout the five boroughs. In the middle of a pandemic, their goal was to make this new system click with hundreds of thousands of voters, from upwardly mobile young professionals working from home to working-class folks who could never really afford to quarantine, in every imaginable language and dialect.

As the weeks pass, she’s now left with another task: answering the question, Did we succeed?

Voter turnout was up in this election compared to eight years ago — an undeniable win — but educators themselves are wary of attributing any such success wholly to their efforts. “If you weren’t going to turn out under the old system, there’s nothing necessarily inherent about this new system that would be appealing for you to turnout,” said Daniel Favors, who emphasized that the election took place in a year that had already seen heightened political engagement in the city, from Black Lives Matter protests to the presidential election. “It’s not about getting more people out, it’s about the quality of engagement.”

The ranked-choice system, which allows voters to pick up to five candidates in order of preference, received early criticism from opponents that candidates of color and voters of color alike could be subject to undesirable outcomes. For candidates of color, fears that they would face greater penalization in a ranked-choice system than in a plurality came to the fore, with critics arguing that the change might prompt voters to prioritize conventional or safe — often white — candidates. (A March report by the Electoral Reform Research Group found no effective difference between the marginalization candidates of color faced in a ranked-choice voting and in voting by plurality.) Critics also expressed concerns that voters of color, especially those in Black, Latinx, and Asian communities, might experience a reduction in their electoral power due to insufficient understanding of the change.

Last year, six of the city’s Council members — including Eric Adams — filed suit in Manhattan’s State Supreme Court to stop the implementation of ranked-choice voting in this year’s election. The suit was eventually rejected by a judge in May. According to Daniel Favors, who expressly refused to name names, the resources spent on the opposition would have been better used for education.

“Whereas there were people who could have been using a heck of a lot of time to educate people, they chose instead to speak more about what a travesty ranked-choice voting is, and how awful and terrible it is,” she told me.

For Rank The Vote NYC, those education efforts took many forms. Sean Dugar began shepherding the coalition’s efforts last September. “We’ve hosted over 600 trainings that have reached about 300,000 New Yorkers,” said Dugar, a veteran of the NAACP and Common Cause with two decades of political organizing experience. “We’ve done on-the-ground activities that have reached about another 300,000 New Yorkers. And in the special election, we did direct mail to voters. So that reached another 150,000 people.”

Those trainings included in-person and virtual presentations at senior and community centers, some as short as 15 minutes, others as long as 40 minutes. To give New Yorkers the experience of voting in a ranked-choiced system prior to June 22, they worked with the developer of the RankedVote.co platform to host mock elections. Dugar is especially proud of the organization’s “weekend of action” on May 15 and 16, when, alongside partner organizations such as Meals on Wheels, Rank the Vote NYC reached 150,000 people through a mix of online, phone, and in-person pushes. They met New Yorkers in green markets, community events, and were even able to give presentations in places of worship that weekend.

Kyle Ishmael, executive director of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus, sits on the board of Build the Bench, an organization that mobilizes young people of color to get involved in local politics, and he believes even nominal community education may improve voter participation.

“I think that what drives that apathetic feeling from people or that exhaustion is a lack of education,” he said. “Like most things, trying to meet people where they are is key.”

For Ishmael and Build the Bench, which primarily targets under-40s professional people of color, meeting people where they are meant hosting digital panels and social-media events, including an Instagram series focused on ranked-choice voting, in partnership with Rank the Vote NYC. These education efforts were boosted by a $15 million fund provided by the city and announced by Mayor Bill De Blasio in April. (For Daniel Favors, the city’s support was not timely enough. “As much as we appreciated that, and we were grateful that that investment was made, that was less than 90 days before the election.”)

To determine quality of engagement in the election, the organizers are paying close attention to the phenomenon known as “ballot exhaustion.” Ballot exhaustion refers to when a voter’s ballot becomes effectively inconsequential in determining a winner because every candidate ranked by the voter has been eliminated from the race. Unofficial ranked-choice data from the Board of Elections shows that 15 percent of voters did not rank declared mayoral winner Adams or second-place finisher, Kathryn Garcia. Had they ranked the latter, it might have altered the outcome of the race. “I like [ranked-choice voting] if there was relative equality in how people utilize their ballots,” de Blasio said last week. “In other words, if in more privileged and less privileged communities, you saw consistent voting one through five, or as close to that as possible, everyone [is] maximizing the power of their ballot.”

“If it turns out, conversely, that we see a real skew, then I think it’s time to reassess,” he said, “because what I don’t want to see a system that enfranchises some people and not others.”

How can the city assess if there was such a disparity? For Christina Greer, a Fordham professor of political science and co-host of the FAQNYC podcast, the effectiveness of community education in this election can only be determined when we have data that measures how and where organizers did outreach against the voting maps by neighborhood. What is perhaps even more pressing, and what would aid all future community education efforts and New Yorkers’ faith in the system, she said, is an overhaul of the Board of Elections.

“My biggest concern before the election was that we have a Board of Elections that does not function at the highest levels of competence, which sadly materialized,” Greer said. “There’s a big difference between incompetence and fraud, but keep in mind we’re coming off of four years, five years now, of Trump screaming, ‘Fraud! fraud! fraud!’ It weakens the faith that voters have in the electoral system,” she said. “And when you’re operating with only a quarter people bothering to participate … that’s not a sign of a healthy democracy.”

Still, there’s reason to be hopeful. Nearly a week after the election, on June 28, Rank the Vote NYC released preliminary exit-poll analysis conducted by Edison Research. The findings suggest that the final count of voter turnout could be the highest New York City has seen in the city’s primaries in 30 years. Results indicated no racial disparities across ethnicities in understanding ranked-choice voting or in how to complete the ballot. What’s more, 77 percent of voters, according to their data, wish to keep using ranked choice.

In the end, Daniel Favors believes community education is a multiyear-round effort that requires the support of not just the government, but the business and philanthropic communities as well. According to her, this is especially vital in our political moment, with a judiciary that is hostile to voting rights and civil rights.

“We have got to have a wholesale investment in robust, dynamic, culturally responsive voter and civic education,” she said. “We have got to ensure that the people who were intentionally excluded from participating in this type of leadership are given access to the materials, information and long-term sustainable programming that are going to allow us to be more than big players in the determination of our destiny.”

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