Will Ranked Choice Voting favor FilAm City Council candidates?

by Ricky Rillera

A voter gets his ballot before voting | Photo by R. Taylor/VOA via Creative Commons

NEW YORK – As New York City readies itself to this year’s municipal elections, voters, too, have their preparation to do – knowing the candidates and their values, ideals, and track record. It includes FilAm candidates – Marni Halasa (District 3-Manhattan), Deirdre Levy (District 35 – Brooklyn), and Steve Raga (District 26 – Queens).

And, of course, understanding what Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is all about, a new voting system at work this year. Already, some voters had cast their ballots during the special elections earlier this year and on June 12, when early voting kicked off. The primary election is on June 22.

New York City Council Gale Brewer first introduced the RCV in 2010 after a costly and low voter turnout in the runoff elections for the public advocate and city comptroller in 2009. However, it remained dormant until 2010 and 2018, when the Charter Revision Commissions seriously explored RCV’s feasibility for municipal elections and concluded that they needed more time to decide.

In a 2019 referendum, the RCV finally prevailed, garnering nearly 74 percent of voters with effect in the 2021 local elections after officials felt that they had to educate and engage all candidates – mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough president, and city council — and the electorate.

Ranked-choice voting is an electoral system that allows people to vote for multiple candidates in order of preference. Instead of just choosing a candidate a voter wants to win, he fills out the ballot indicating the first choice, second choice, or third choice (or more as needed) for each position.

Pro Ranked Choice Voting

Andrew Yang, a presidential Democratic candidate in 2020 and now a mayoral candidate in New York City, once championed it as a key policy initiative. He said it could help prevent polarized election campaigns, increase the number of women and minority candidates running for office, and reduce negative campaigning.

“It’s a great thing for democracy,” says Brad Lander, New York City Council member and a candidate for city controller. Lander believes that RCV promotes “collaborative campaigning” as opposed to the tactics of the past such as negative campaigning, compromises, and pressure to avoid “wasting” votes.”

Marni Halasa | Photo courtesy of Halasa Campaign

Halasa, a city council candidate in District 3, told the Philippine Daily Mirror that she believes in RCV. “Ranked choice voting is supposed to lessen negative campaigning. But I believe that candidates must differentiate themselves from others, and you can do that in a respectful way,” she said. “But you do need to point out the differences because you need to give the voters a reason to vote for you. So I don’t believe that’s negative, I think that’s necessary.”

The majority (50 percent plus one) of first-choice votes wins outright, just like James Gennaro in District 24, who won in the special elections. However, if no candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, a new counting process kicks in. A candidate who garnered the least votes gets eliminated, and that candidate’s voters’ ballots are redistributed to their second-choice pick. In other words, if a losing candidate is ranked as a voter’s first choice and the candidate gets eliminated, the vote still counts; it moves to a voter’s second-choice candidate. That process continues until there is a candidate who has the majority of votes.

Deirdre Levy | Photo courtesy of Levy Campaign

The name of a candidate positioned at number one on the ballot may also help in the RCV. Levy’s luck came into play when she won a “lottery” to have her name on top of the ballot in District 35. Levy also believes in RCV. In a text message sent to Philippine Daily Mirror, she said that “Ranked Choice Voting gives candidates like me, who are women of color, more of an equitable opportunity to get elected to city offices.”

The Philippine Daily Mirror also reached out to another FilAm candidate Steve Raga for a comment about the RCV, but there was no response from his campaign.

Experience from the Special Elections

Some people think the RCV process could be simple. After all the preparation, RCV rolled out on January 1, 2021. Districts 24 and 31 had special elections in February 2021, and Districts 11 and 15 in March 2021. Candidates and voters did not find a problem with it, particularly in District 24, where RCV was not a factor. James Gennaro, the winner of that race, prevailed easily in the first round without activating the RCV mechanism. However, in District 11, Eric Dinowitz won in the sixth round; Oswald Feliz won in District 15 in the 10th. Finally, Selvena N Brooks-Powers won in the 9th round in District 31 with 3,841 votes. It took several weeks to declare a winner, with the official results announced on March 18.

Final Results in District 31 Special Elections using the RCV. | Source NYC Board of Elections
Final Results in District 11 Special Elections using the RCV. | Source: NYC Board of Elections
Final Results in District 15 Special Elections using the RCV. | Source: NYC Board of Elections

In special elections, candidates do not run as members of major parties but form their parties. For example, in District 24, Gennaro’s was called “Queens Strong,” and Moumita Ahmed, his opponent, was “Mo For The People.”

But for some first-time voters and seniors in the Asian community find it is quite complicated. To some extent, some voters who are fully engaged in the city’s civic life also see the new system as confusing.

Survey results

According to a recent poll from PIX11News, NewsNation, and Emerson College, 46 percent of African-American voters and 38 percent of Latino voters don’t know about RCV. At the same time, only 20 percent of white New Yorkers haven’t heard about it.

Overall, according to the poll, only 40 percent of all New Yorkers know about RCV.

“I have been used to voting every election as my civic duty,” said Sergs Estrada of Jackson Heights. “But I don’t understand how votes are redistributed to the second choice, if no candidate gets the 51 percent majority.”

At the earlier stage of introducing the RCV, the mayor’s office and the NYC Board of Elections acknowledged this concern. As a result, the city council allocated a $2 million advertising fund to educate the electorate. Hence, they aired ads explaining the RCV process on radio and TV specific to the language of a community ethnicity. Print media also carried these ads.

Matthew Sollars, Director, Public Relations at New York City Campaign Finance Board, said that the NYC Votes campaign would focus on getting every neighborhood and community ready to exercise their right to vote to start June 22.

“In the weeks ahead of the June primary, our campaign will build on those successful efforts. We have budgeted more than $2 million for advertising, in addition to the Voter Guide that will be mailed to all voters citywide,” said Sollars.

A survey conducted by Rank the Vote NYC, a coalition of ranked-choice voting advocates and educators, showed that 95 percent of voters in special elections for Council Districts 24 and 31 in Queens found ranked-choice voting straightforward or somewhat simple. Sixty-one percent ranked multiple candidates, with 31 percent of those using up all five spots on the ballot. However, among those who picked one candidate, 80 percent of those surveyed said they didn’t use RCV because they only liked one candidate.

In an informal survey conducted by the Philippine Daily Mirror among FilAm voters between March and April, 6 of 10 voters say it was their first time hearing the new system. In addition, some of the younger Fil-Am voters in the last presidential elections said they are not keen on voting at this time, the survey revealed.

“I know some folks think it’s a bit complicated, but it does give insurgent campaigns like mine a fighting chance. Often machine candidates sweep elections, but with this model, someone who comes in the second or third place can win,” said Halasa. “With six candidates in the race, it’s not probable that one person will get over 50% of the vote, so the second-place winner could actually win the seat. That’s exciting.”

On campaign financing, Halasa said, “In my race, I’ve been highly critical of my primary opponent, Erik Bottcher, who was Corey Johnson’s Chief of Staff. Eric is the candidate for the big real estate lobby, and recently benefited from Voters NYC, a real estate PAC, that spent $13,000 to help his campaign.”

Added Halasa: “And even though independent expenditures are legal, it casts an undue influence of special interest money in elections. That is wrong and highly unfair.”

Growing Asian population in several City Council Districts

According to a recent report issued by the Asian American Federation (AAF) that highlighted Asian communities in New York City council districts, “the city’s Asian population has grown 15 percent between 2010 and 2019.” In addition, the report showed that “Asian populations in 36 council districtrs experienced double digit percent growth between 2010 and 2019.”

The three City Council Districts where FilAm candidates are running grew in Asian population in 2019 compared to 2010. District 3-Manhattan has 29,423 (Halasa), District 26-Queens (Raga) 49,251, and District 35-Brooklyn (Levy), 14,555. Among the three candidates, Raga has the highest number of Filipinos in his District at 5,583. Halasa has 1,313, and Levy has the least at 424 Filipinos.

The AAF identified the needs of each ethnic group represented in the report and expected City Council candidates to address them. However, the information does not say how many Asians are eligible to vote in these districts.

This AAF information may not be meaningful to FilAm candidates now and may not affect their views on RCV. But if their campaigns consider the possibility of reaching out to these communities, they may obtain votes to their advantage. RCV advocates say this voting system intends to avoid the problem of candidates winning crowded Council races with a relatively small share of votes.

The three FilAm hopefuls are eyeing a seat in the City Council. Will RCV favor their candidacy? In Raga’s District 26, there are 18 candidates on the ballot; Levy has eight, and Halasa, six candidates. However, other factors are also in play, including low voter turnout resulting from a lack of understanding of the RCV process and a lack of interest in voting.

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