Ranked Choice Voting in New York City: Friend or Foe To People of Color
Last week’s special election for City Council in Queens has spurred a renewed debate on the efficacy of the ranked choice voting system in New York City . In November 2019, New York City voters voted overwhelmingly to institute ranked choice voting in primaries and special elections in municipal elections. The change comes at a critical time; the new format has been launched at a time in which all citywide posts, as well as more than half of the city council seats will be up for grabs.
There is no doubt that our city election process will be drastically altered by ranked choice voting (RCV). What is less certain is how this change will affect voter participation, particularly participation among communities of color. Perhaps the recent election in Queens may provide a possible clue as to its possible ramifications, particularly in communities with large numbers of people of color.
The city’s progressive community seems to believe that RCV will affect our electoral system positively by helping increase voter participation and by saving the city money since it will eliminate the need for run-off elections.
Those championing RCV argue that the new system will result in greater elected representation among women and people of color and that it will help increase voting participation. But is this a fair assessment?
Supporters of RCV have largely pointed to research undertaken by FairVote in 2008 on the impact of RCV in cities which have instituted this format of voting. Among the cities highlighted in the FairVote report is San Francisco, which instituted RCV in 2004. The report examines voter reactions and participation in San Francisco based on two elections in 2004 and 2005.
The decision to use FairVote research that is now over 12 years ago is baffling, particularly given the repercussions of implementing an entirely new electoral system in the largest municipality in the country. Truth be told, there is very little research on RCV, particularly as it relates to how RCV impacts communities of color.
Yet while the research on RCV is limited, there has been more recent research than that by FairVote, research that specifically explored the effects of RCV in urban centers — like New York City. As regards the impact of this method on voters in communities of color, some of these results are troubling, and lead me to believe that attempting a drastically new election system is a risk not worth taking, especially when so much is at stake.
Jason McDaniel, a political scientist at San Francisco State University, has examined RCV and its impact extensively since its debut in San Francisco in 2004. McDaniel finds that under RCV, voter turnout actually decreased. In fact, after analyzing mayoral elections in over 200 cities nationwide, McDaniel concluded that voting participation decreased between two to five percentage points in the cities that utilized RCV.
He warns that this decrease would especially be evident among “segments of the electorate that are already least likely to participate.”
In New York City, those least likely to vote are people of color, particularly Latinos. A recent Gotham Gazette article noted that in the November 2020 presidential election, voter turnout decreased in a number of places across the city, including sections of the Bronx which happen to be Latino-majority communities, while turnout in other parts of the city increased. The prospect of decreased voting participation in Latino communities is troubling considering that in 2018 and 2020, only 20% of all eligible Latino voters participated in those primary election cycles, whereas there was an unusual spike among all other constituencies (based on my own analysis of voter data).
To add to the fears, McDaniel found that in odd-year elections, in which our NYC elections take place, under RCV voter turnout decreased by a whopping eight percentage points. When considering New York City’s turnout rate in NYC’s 2017 primaries (odd-year cycle) compared to the September 2018 and June 2020 primaries, we find a decrease of almost 50%. When factoring into the equation voter turnout in general elections between odd-years and even-years, we find on average a decrease of 500, 000–700,000 voters citywide.
Voter turnout in odd-year cycles is always lower than in even-year elections. But McDaniel’s study shows that voter participation is lower still when RCV is in play.
Can RCV, an initiative many hope will increase voting participation and engagement, have the unintended consequence of contributing to even lower voting participation among Latinos and other communities of color?
While there are not yet sufficient studies on the impact of RCV to provide a concrete answer to this query, initial findings that indicate the potential of decreased voting participation makes the implementation of a new system troubling, and certainly worth more conversation and education.