Polling station voters sign (79332)
Polling station voters sign Credit: Nia Sanders

The rollout of ranked-choice voting might be confusing to some, but things will be clear soon. At least according to the New York City Board of Elections.

Special elections for two city council seats were held in the Bronx last night. In the race to replace Rep. Ritchie Torres (D) in District 15, which serves the Fordham, Mount Hope, Belmont, East Tremont, Allerton and Olinville neighborhoods, tenant lawyer and Hostos Community College adjunct professor Oswald Feliz held a 973-vote lead among a large group of candidates, including District 6 Community Board Manager and Sen. Jamaal Bailey’s District Director John E. Sanchez, LGBTQIA activist Elisa Crespo (who would become the city’s first trans council member if she wins), former 80th Assembly District Council Leader Kenny G. Agosto, Community Board District 7 Member Ischia J. Bravo, former Bernie Sanders 2020 national organizer Latchmi Devi Gopal and City Board of Elections finance clerk Ariel Rivera-Diaz.

In the District 11 race to replace Andrew Cohen, Democratic District Leader Eric Dinowitz held a 2,900-vote lead in a group that includes climate activist Jessica Heller, People’s Theater Project Executive Director Mino Lora and former New York City Police Department Detective and criminal justice advocate Carlton Berkley.

But the results aren’t final yet. According to the city board of elections, since no one candidate reached the “50% plus one” standard for winning, they have to keep counting. The last day absentee ballots will be accepted is March 30. The last day military ballots will be accepted is April 5. The tentative day ranked-choice voting would begin is April 7. That could give the Board of Elections, and other entities, time to teach more New Yorkers about the ranked-choice voting process.

Valerie Vazquez-Diaz, director of communications and public affairs for the New York City Board of Elections, said that the board has to “go through the rounds” and count every vote once they’re all in.

“At this point, we’ll go through the manual process of counting,” stated Vazquez-Diaz. “It will be done at the Bronx borough office in an open and transparent manner with campaign members present. The media can also observe the vote counting and it will be done by a bipartisan team of board and staff.”

2021 marked the beginning of ranked-choice voting with special elections including one for the District 31 City Council seat in Queens Feb. 23. No one reached the “50% plus one” milestone on Election Night so more votes had to come in and all were counted by hand. Selvena Brooks-Powers won the seat, but it took several weeks to declare a winner. The official results were announced March 18.

But Vazquez-Diaz said that there’s a reason for this.

“We’re waiting on the state board to certify the [tabulation] software, which would allow us to run the ballots through the software and go through the rounds [quickly] instead of manually.”

When asked about the software issue possibly affecting Election Night in November, Vazquez-Diaz said, “The state will certify the software by then.” She believes that the New York State Board of Elections will approve of the software by the June primaries.

Streamlining the process could behoove the city and state board of elections, but many New Yorkers don’t know how it works.

According to a recent poll from PIX11News, NewsNation and Emerson College, 46% of African-American voters and 38% of Latino voters don’t know about ranked-choice voting whereas only 20% of white New Yorkers haven’t heard about it.

Overall, according to the poll, only 40% of all New Yorkers know about ranked-choice voting.

With ranked-choice voting, the voter is given a ballot with a list of candidates and five available spots for voters to fill out bubbles for candidates in order of preference. The voter isn’t obligated to fill all five spots. Voters can still write in candidates and (as seen in this week’s special elections) vote via absentee ballot. The goal of ranked-choice voting is to end the need for runoffs, which (according to New York State Election Law) occur when no citywide candidate receives at least 40% of the vote in a primary election.

Ranked-choice voting will be used in all elections and primaries for the mayor, public advocate, city comptroller, borough president and city council seats.

New Yorkers of color tend to be the most marginalized group and having no knowledge of ranked-choice voting could make the voting process harder for those who go to the polls. Next Tuesday, there are two City Council special elections in the Bronx. The city’s Board of Elections began manually counting ballots in recent special elections in Queens. This is despite the State Board of Election approving to use software, dubbed the Universal Ranked Choice Voting Calculator, in late January.

In an emailed letter sent to the City Board of Elections, the State Board of Elections agreed to work with the city in developing a plan to make sure the voting software counts votes efficiently and quickly.

“We realize that there is a special election currently underway in NYC and two more on the horizon, and NYSBOE will work with NYCBOE as to interim procedures to conduct the RCV tabulation until such time as a full examination is complete and successful,” said officials at the State Board of Elections.

A spokesperson for the New York City Campaign Finance Board said that the agency is currently engaged in an effort to make New Yorkers aware of the new normal…using a different poll altogether.

“NYC Votes has launched a comprehensive effort to educate New Yorkers about ranked-choice voting,” said Mathew Sollars, director of public for the CFB. “So far, we have concentrated our efforts primarily on reaching voters in the districts holding special elections and exit polling suggests those efforts have been successful.”

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

Sollars said that the NYC Votes campaign will focus on getting every neighborhood and community ready to exercise their right to vote starting 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.