Get ready for ranked-choice voting


One change leads to another.

Fresh on the heels of the statewide debut of early voting last week, voters in the five boroughs adopted city charter changes that could mean a major shift in the city’s primary races — including the already contentious fight over the District 11 city council seat.

Currently, the candidate who gets the plurality of votes — around 40 percent — in an election wins, and that’s how it’ll stay for general elections. But beginning in 2021, primaries and special elections for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough president and city council will be calculated by the ranked-choice voting method.

Where there are more than two candidates on the ballot, voters can rank their choices from highest to lowest. The candidate with 50 percent or more of the first-preference votes is the nominee.

But if no candidate reaches that amount, those with the fewest first-choice votes are eliminated. Their ballots are then distributed to second-choice candidates. The lowest-performing candidates are eliminated, and their votes distributed according to rank until one candidate reaches 50 percent of the total votes.

Democratic primaries in New York City can be extremely competitive, Lehman College political science professor Helen Chang says. It’s not uncommon to see 10 or more names in the same race — like the special election earlier this year for public advocate, ultimately won by Jumaane Williams. Ranked-choice can tame a sprawling field of candidates appearing on the ballot, thereby eliminating the need for costly run-off elections.

About 20 American cities — like San Francisco, San Leandro and Oakland in California; St. Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota, to name a few — use ranked-choice voting for local elections.

“What people have seen in past examples using ranked-choice voting is that there’s less negative campaigning, less divisiveness,” Chang said. “Because a candidate is not just going out for a plurality when getting the most votes over any other candidate, candidates will be campaigning to voters, saying, ‘Maybe I’m not your first choice, but I want to be your second choice. I already know that your first choice is going to be so-and-so, but I’d like to be your second or third choice.’”

That makes candidates reach out to communities they might not have considered in past races to get that second- or third-choice vote, she said. It also increases the likelihood that non-traditional candidates win or earn more votes.

Psychologically, voters don’t feel their ballot is wasted if they vote for the long shot they have a good gut feeling about, but also want to support a more mainstream candidate as well.

“And voters feel they have a little more say,” Chang said. “Even though their first-choice candidate may not have gotten the majority, it’s a majority-based system. So it’s like approval of the majority and not having someone who just got the minimal 40 percent.”

In areas that already have adopted ranked-choice voting, candidates have used cross-endorsements as a valuable campaign strategy.

“There could be potentially interesting political alliances made with cross-endorsements, especially if there is a candidate that a party or a community doesn’t want” elected, Chang said. “Crossing endorsements can be very important, especially if there’s a third party or someone who doesn’t have a lot of money raised.”

On the local front, ranked-choice could affect the race for city council. There are already three candidates filed for the seat currently occupied by Andrew Cohen, whose term ends in 2021 and isn’t eligible for re-election. Former Community Board 8 chair Dan Padernacht filed campaign finance documents last year, followed quickly by Eric Dinowitz, a teacher and son of current Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz. Political newcomer Dionel Then announced his intent to run early this year. Then is a former intern at The Riverdale Press.

Yet, Dinowitz doesn’t believe ranked-choice will influence how he campaigns.

“My strategy is to get a majority of the votes by going into every community and fighting for working class families just as I have been,” he said.

Ranked-choice is a good thing, Dinowitz said, because it gives voters more of a voice in who represents them, just like progressive campaign finance reform makes running for office fairer and eliminates special-interest money.

“I think what we’ve seen in the past few elections is city council and citywide offices winning with a plurality, not with a majority,” Dinowitz said. “So I think this will have an effect on the choices people make in the voting booth.”

Dinowitz may not have immediate plans to cross-endorse, but Padernacht is open to it — should more people enter the race over the next two years. But right now, he said it’s unclear how the shift to ranked-choice voting would change his campaign strategy.

It will, however, give voters more of a voice.

“If you have one candidate that has a large block of voters, and there were a significant amount of voters who were not receptive to that one candidate, their votes would not be split,” Padernacht said.

Then said he went to the polls last week thinking about how ranked-choice voting could affect his campaign. He feared it could give other candidates a way to “knock off the little guy” in the race.

“But on second thought, I realized that it is more of an opportunity for me to actually get out the vote, campaign and make people aware of who I am and my platform and what I stand for,” Then said.

He could be the non-traditional candidate like those Chang said benefit the most from ranked-choice voting. And he’s also open to working with other candidates eventually, but there’s not really been a formal dialogue between he and either Dinowitz or Padernacht.

And there’s no guarantee the race for city council will remain a three-man contest. Environmentalist and activist Jessica Haller says she’s been seriously considering a run for the past six months, although she’s not yet ready to declare herself a candidate.

The voters’ approval of ranked-choice voting put a new dimension on the idea.

“I’ve done a lot of engagement with the whole ‘elect more women’ movement, and it seems from some literature I’ve read that ranked-choice voting is actually beneficial to women candidates,” Haller said. “Now, we don’t know what it will be like in our district or in this race or whatever, but (ranked-choice voting) seems to enable more underrepresented candidates.”