December 8, 2021

Man Fine

The Fine Art Of Education

Lower-income communities showed less engagement with ranked-choice voting in NYC primary





People prepare to vote during the primary on June 22, 2021 in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn borough in New York City. | Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Ranked-choice voting premiered on its biggest American stage during New York City’s June primary — and while 90 percent of Democratic voters used it to pick a nominee for mayor, an economic divide emerged between those who adopted the practice fully and those who did not.

A POLITICO analysis of recently released election data shows that some whiter, wealthier neighborhoods were more likely to employ the new ranking system than lower income areas of the city, many of which are home to Black, Latino and Asian communities. And voters in the south Bronx had a higher incidence of ballot mistakes, which invalidated some of their picks.

Taken together, the data suggests a largely successful but uneven rollout of the new practice, which was pushed by the de Blasio administration and good government groups and influenced by the candidates themselves — some of whom likely swayed the behavior of their supporters.

The new data, released by the city’s Board of Elections, provides fresh fuel to the ongoing debate about ranked-choice voting, which was approved by a ballot referendum in 2019 and is designed to avoid costly, low-turnout runoffs and discourage negative campaigning.

The process allows voters to pick up to five candidates in order of preference. If no one cracks 50 percent of the initial vote, the bottom contender is eliminated and those ballots are redistributed to voters’ second choices. The process is repeated until someone wins a majority.

Voters who did not employ ranked-choice voting risked giving up their chance to have a say in the ultimate winner if their initial choice was nixed from the ballot — an outcome akin to voting in an election but skipping the runoff.

In the Democratic mayoral primary, which Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams clinched by one point, 86 percent of voters who participated used ranked-choice voting, meaning they picked more than one candidate, according to POLITICO’s analysis. On average, they ranked 3.3 people.

But some areas of the city used it more frequently than others.

On the Upper East and Upper West Sides, in Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea and Midtown in Manhattan, well over 90 percent of voters employed ranked-choice voting. In Assembly District 52 in Brooklyn, encompassing parts of Park Slope, Carroll Gardens and Brooklyn Heights, 95 percent of voters picked more than one candidate — the highest percentage in the city.

These same areas are among the wealthiest in the city. The Brooklyn Assembly district, for example, has a median household income of nearly $140,000, the second-highest in the five boroughs.

Voters in these districts tended to rank former city Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia first and MSNBC legal analyst Maya Wiley second, according to a map recently released by the CUNY Graduate Center.

Several less affluent communities, on the other hand, tended to use ranked-choice voting less often. Assembly districts covering Flushing in Queens; areas of Sunset Park and Bensonhurst in Brooklyn along with neighborhoods including Fordham in the Bronx all had ranked-choice usage rates in the low 70-percent range.

Flushing and Sunset Park largely went for former presidential candidate Andrew Yang followed by Adams, according to the CUNY map. Voters in the Bronx Assembly District mostly picked Adams followed by Wiley.

In the lower-profile race for city comptroller, many of the same wealthy districts were among the more active users of ranked-choice voting. And several of the same lower-income areas were less engaged with the new system of voting.

But there were notable differences when compared to the mayoral contest.

In the Democratic primary for the city’s chief fiscal watchdog, only 62 percent of voters who participated used ranked-choice voting, selecting 2.3 candidates on average. A handful of high-income Assembly districts in Manhattan were among neighborhoods that employed ranked-choice voting most often, with around 70 percent of voters in those areas using the new practice.

But they were joined by many other areas with lower median household incomes: Voters in Assembly District 33 in Southeast Queens — a large voting bloc made up of Black homeowners — were among the most active users of ranked-choice voting in the city. Around 70 percent of voters employed the new system in the northern Bronx, which includes many Black and Latino neighborhoods, along with Assembly District 28 in the Forest Hills section of Queens, where half the population identifies as white and the median household income sits above the city average at $82,000.

When compared to the mayoral race, some of the same districts appeared near the bottom of the list. For example, Assembly District 49 in Brooklyn — where the median income is below the citywide average and a majority of residents identify as Asian — was among the districts least likely to use the system in both races.

Overall, the vast majority of voters who weighed in on the Democratic nominees for mayor and comptroller filled out their ballots without incident. In most districts, less than 2 percent of ballots contained an error in which the voter tried to rank multiple candidates as one selection, which would have invalidated that particular ranking.

But several neighborhoods in the South Bronx had a slightly higher share of erroneous ballots, and many overlapped with lower usage of ranked-choice voting. In Assembly District 86, for example, more than 4 percent of ballots contained a mistake that would have invalidated at least one pick for mayor.

In the leadup to the June primary, ranked-choice supporters argued that education and outreach were sufficient to brief New Yorkers on a wide variety of backgrounds about how the system works, along with why they should use it.

A group of detractors — Adams among them — alleged that preparations were insufficient to reach voters with less access to technology and less connected to mainstream avenues of information: lower-income households, communities of color and neighborhoods of non-native English speakers. Some opposed the new system altogether on the grounds that it would diminish the influence of borough political parties and shake up campaign strategies at a time when Black officials had achieved significant electoral gains in New York.

Opponents filed a lawsuit seeking to block the system’s implementation and introduced legislation in the City Council to invoke another ballot referendum in the hopes of clawing it back in the future. Both were unsuccessful.

While some of the takeaways from ranked-choice voting usage might embolden critics, the primary results suggested that, in addition to income, the use of ranked-choice voting also hinged on the candidates that voters supported along with the particular context of the races, according to FairVote, an organization that promotes ranked-choice voting across the country.

For example, the group found white voters were more likely to rank multiple mayoral candidates while Black voters were less likely to do so. Yet the exact opposite was true in the comptroller’s race.

The organization pointed to the rhetoric of Adams — who suggested that ranked-choice voting would disenfranchise Black and Latino voters — and his status as a frontrunner as reasons why neighborhoods in Southeast Queens were more likely to eschew ranking in the mayoral race but more likely to use it in the comptroller race.

“Candidates who are perceived as front-runners and candidates who engage in anti-RCV rhetoric are likely to attract more ‘bullet votes,’ or votes which select only that candidate and rank no others,” the organization wrote in its analysis. “In the mayoral election, Eric Adams fits both of those criteria.”

The organization also looked at various borough president races and found that white residents were less likely to employ ranked-choice voting in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan while Black and Latino residents were more likely to rank.

Sean McMinn contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misstated the district with the highest percentage of voters who picked more than one candidate. It was Assembly District 52.

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