The New Democratic Establishment and ranked choice voting

New York City’s first large-scale test of its new ranked-choice voting system looks, in the end, like a success, at least by its proponents own self-imposed standards, and despite even more embarrassing than usual logistical problems at the Board of Elections.

Overall voter turnout, though still depressingly low, increased significantly from the past several primary contests. And the new voting system actually seems to have fulfilled one of its central promises — that it would lead to the election of more women and particularly women of color, in a city where women haven’t made tremendous advances in gaining elected office.

After November, women will likely occupy at least 28 of 51 City Council seats. And the Council is poised to become more diverse — with roughly 35 candidates who won their Democratic primary races identifying as people of color, up from 26 in the current Council, including 10 Latinas and six Asian-American candidates.

Sounds great right? More diverse, more representative.

So why have some Democratic politicians, including Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee for mayor, been decrying the new system as a sophisticated form of racist voter suppression?

To answer that question, you need to know a little bit about the history of Democratic party politics and the tribalism of New York City.

Would it surprise you to know, for example, that New York City already had a form of ranked-choice voting, in the 1930s, that helped diversify city government both ethnically and ideologically, and led to the election of the city’s first Black City Council member, Adam Clayton Powell, in 1941?

“Choice voting” as the system was called, was implemented as a recommendation of a charter revision commission after a series of corruption scandals in the 1920s and 1930s. It was slightly different from ranked choice balloting, but it had the same aim — to better reflect the demographics and ideological bent of the city’s voters. It had the added effect of diluting the influence of the Democratic Party, i.e. Tammany, machine in city government. It lasted about a decade before it was done away with in 1947, under the guise of rooting out Communist sympathizers in government, and the Democratic Party establishment took control of the city’s politics once again.

What’s changed in New York between 1947 and now is the face of the Democratic party establishment. In recent years, Black elected officials have achieved the level of power in city and state politics that Irish-American or Jewish-American New Yorkers were able to attain in the 20th century.

As the always-astute Errol Louis recently wrote in his weekly Daily News column, “If Adams wins in November, it will mark a high tide of Black political power in New York. Black officials currently chair four of the five Democratic county organizations in the city. The Legislature is run by two Black officials, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate Majority Leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Tish James is attorney general. New York’s congressional delegation now has seven Black members, the largest number of Black politicians ever sent to Congress from any state. The almost certain-to-be next Manhattan DA, Alvin Bragg, is a Black man.”

So, it’s understandable that politicians who managed to get elected to powerful political positions without the aid of a system like ranked-choice voting, especially Black politicians, would be supremely skeptical of a new system that may have the ultimate effect of diluting their power, at the moment they have finally attained it.

In the months after voters approved the change to ranked-choice voting in a citywide referendum in fall 2019, some Democrats began trying to repeal it.

A group of politicians filed a lawsuit in late 2020 questioning the new voting system’s constitutionality. And in the waning weeks of the primary, Eric Adams charged that a political alliance Asian-American candidate Andrew Yang forged with white candidate Kathryn Garcia was tantamount to racist voter suppression.

After the primary election, even though Adams ultimately emerged victorious, after cobbling together a coalition of Black and Latino voters to eke out a victory over Garcia, some Democratic lawmakers remain extremely suspicious of ranked-choice voting.

That suspicion was a predominant theme at a state Assembly hearing Monday held in downtown Brooklyn on the new voting method.

Councilman I. Daneek Miller is sponsoring legislation to put a referendum on the November ballot asking voters whether they want to repeal ranked choice voting. And Kirsten John Foy, northeast regional director for Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, described ranked-choice voting as “a nefarious intentional plan to dilute the votes of African Americans, of people of color in this city.”

Is ranked-choice voting a nefarious and racist form of voter suppression?

While the June 2021 primary results would seem to undermine Foy and Adams’s argument, it is possible, when you think about it, given the city’s demographic composition, that some future candidate could figure out a way to put together a coalition of voters to accomplish what Yang and Garcia tried to do at the 11th hour of the campaign— cobbling together support from some combination of white progressives and Asian-Americans in numbers great enough to overcome a Black or Hispanic candidate, or dilute the strength of a Black or Hispanic bloc of voters.

We don’t know who all of Eric Adams’s voters were, but the fact that he was far ahead in first choice, in-person votes with major support from districts with high proportions of Black and Hispanic voters, but only won by a very narrow margin after ranked-choice votes were tallied, helps explain why he may find the new voting system a little alarming. He ran a disciplined, smart campaign that focused on themes of public safety at a time when the issue has dominated voters’ concerns and has a long record in elected office, but won against Garcia, a first-time political candidate, by less than 8,000 votes.

Garcia and Yang were just candidates doing what candidates have always done in New York — where for more than a century, Democratic politicians have had to adapt to the changing demographics of the electorate, where no single ethnic or racial group had a foolproof majority in elections — forming multi-racial or ethnic coalitions of voters, combinations of Irish, or Italian, or Jewish, or Black, or Latino voters, in order to win.

The city’s demographics keep on changing. So while the white portion of the city’s voting age population has decreased over the last several decades, falling from above 50 percent in 1990 to around 40 percent by 2011, and Black voters’ share of the city’s voting age population has hovered around 24-25 percent for many years, numbers of Hispanic and Asian-American residents of voting age have been steadily rising in recent decades.

Given the rising numbers of Hispanic and Asian-American voters, it’s totally plausible, and indeed, likely, that with ranked-choice voting, some future candidate may be able to and in fact will do what the Yang/Garcia alliance tried and nearly succeeded in doing — winning citywide office without gaining significant support from Black voters. Under the old system, in recent years, winning a citywide Democratic primary without serious Black support has been very, very difficult, if not impossible. Now, under ranked choice voting, it’s once again a possibility.

Or to put it another way, a future candidate, of any race or ethnicity, could do what Garcia, with Yang’s help, tried and nearly succeeded at doing — winning citywide office without the institutional support of many among the incumbent Democratic Party establishment and the city’s most powerful labor unions, toppling the formula that for many decades has been the tried-and-true path to gaining the Democratic Party nomination.

The current Democratic establishment may look different from white, Irish, Italian and Jewish predecessors, but in certain respects behaves similarly: people in power, who’ve finally got power after long years without it, have something to fear from a new voting system that’s so difficult to control and hard to predict. Ranked choice voting, by its nature, poses an active threat to the low-turnout status quo that serves to protect incumbents.