Headlines: NYC makes history with a majority-women city council
Ranked choice voting contributes to stunning rise in representation for women of color
For the first time ever, New York's City Council has a female – and nearly a woman of color –majority. 31 women won seats on the 51 seat council last November 2021, filling 61% of the council seats. And 25 of them were women of color, making history and bringing gender equity — finally! — to the nation's largest, most diverse and most influential city. Until now, women have never held more than 18 seats, and women of color never won more than a handful.
As reported by Common Cause NYC, city councilwomen Crystal Hudson and Kristin Richardson Jordan are the first out queer Black women elected to the City Council; Chi Osse, at 23, is the youngest-ever Council member; Shahana Hanif is the first Muslim woman and among the first South Asian Council members; Jennifer Gutiérrez is the first Colombian-American; Julie Won and Linda Lee are the first Korean American members; and Shekar Krishnan is the first Indian American.
Like most city governments, New York has long been a male clubhouse, usually dominated by old-guard elites despite the city’s great diversity. No longer. Now new voices and rising generations have a seat at the table, which sets up a more inclusive and democratic future.
How did this stunning change occur? There were many factors, but this election was the first time in over half a century that NYC used ranked choice voting (RCV). RCV contributed to less vote-splitting among like-minded candidates and their voters, which ensured that the female candidates didn’t “spoil” or cancel out each other. NYC also used public financing of campaigns, as it has since 1989, that provides matching funds for donations from residents. Last year, the introduction of RCV coincided with an expansion of public financing in New York City, possibly contributing to the large number of candidates running for office. Nearly a million voters participated, the highest since 1989 and double the turnout in 2017. Both of these reforms together helped reduce the effects of some of the systematic barriers women face, and facilitated this historic shift.
Interestingly, New York City previously used the proportional form of RCV for ten years, from 1937-47. During that time city councilors were elected from a broad range of perspectives, including a Labor Party, a Liberal Party, as well as Democrats and Republicans. Under this system, future congressman Adam Clayton Powell was elected as NYC’s first black city council member, and three women were also elected. Many older New Yorkers remember that time as a “golden age” of city politics.
Plurality voting is replete with barriers for women candidates
Before its use of RCV, NYC used a plurality/”highest vote-getter wins” method, which often force voters to vote against the candidate we don’t want to win rather than voting for the candidate we really like. Election season is fraught with conversations about not splitting or wasting your vote by supporting the candidate you actually like versus which “lesser evil” candidate will defeat the greater-evil “bad guy.”
In a plurality system, thanks to persistent cultural and attitudinal barriers and the fact that women get less PAC funding, women (especially women of color) are often seen as less likely to win. So a vote for a woman is seen as a waste, and women are easily dismissed as “spoiler” candidates. This also incentivizes parties themselves to ask women to stand down and “wait their turn” so they don’t detract votes away from the status-quo candidate, regardless of the considerable skills and experience these women bring to the table.
The head-to-head contests of plurality voting systems also foster negative campaigning, which research shows is particularly harmful for women. #ShePersisted investigated social media posts in the 2020 elections and found that not only are women candidates attacked more often, but attacks against women are overwhelmingly more personal and negative than those against their male counterparts. Attack ads against women also tended to focus on their gender identity and value versus their policy proposals and ideas, much more so than for male candidates.
It’s a vicious cycle that keeps women from running and winning.
Ranked choice voting makes multiple improvements in one fell swoop
RCV addresses both of these dilemmas. RCV meant New Yorkers' votes stayed in play even if their first choice didn’t win, so women candidates could run without worrying about waiting their turn or “splitting votes” with other women in their race. Younger candidates were no longer told to get in line and wait their turn. Two women or two Latina candidates, for example, could both run in the same district without concern that they would divide the community. In fact, with a broader diversity of candidates running, they could mobilize more voters and really boost voter turnout. More voters could hear from a candidate who reflected their own demographic.
Under RCV, the campaign season became more collaborative and positive. Knowing that they are competing for second and third place rankings, it became important for candidates to represent a wider pool of voters – including those supporting their opponents. In March 2022, RepresentWomen hosted Ranked Choice Voting in NYC: Lessons Learned and Next Steps, which featured Attorney General Letitia James and four of the newly elected women councilmembers. When asked about their campaign experience under RCV a number of them shared their inspiring stories.
Councilmember Nantasha Williams said, “If I saw a lawn sign for someone else, I would go to the house and be like, ‘Hey! I agree with them on that. Will you rank me second?’ Something I would've never done in a non-RCV election."
Councilmember Amanda Farías explained, “We were able to overcome challenges because we partnered up with other candidates, and we're able to be as inclusive as we possibly could during the election cycle, and that's great.”
Councilmember Crystal Husdon told us, “Ranked choice voting got us here in many ways…What we saw throughout the campaign cycle was camaraderie and collaboration in a way that you don't normally see on campaigns, both within districts and across districts.”
The NYC election cycle in 2021 was night and day in comparison to the research on winner-take-all campaigns by #ShePersisted.
Voters also reported an overwhelmingly positive experience in using RCV. Research from Unite America, released in April 2022, found that, “A large majority of voters across race, age, and education levels also found the voting instructions and ballot simple and easy to understand. About 94% of voters said that voting instructions were somewhat or very easy to understand…and 94% said that the RCV ballot was somewhat or very simple to fill out (with the large majority, 75%, saying it was very simple).” 77% of voters want to use RCV in NYC again in the future, and 62% of voters said that RCV should be used in other US elections.
Change the rules…and change the results
With the combined powers of ranked choice voting, a public finance option, and support from organizations like 21 in’21, women ran in record numbers in the NYC primaries. Women composed 43% of all candidates in city council races that used RCV, and they received nearly 55% of the vote total. Of the 31 women that won, 26 won in primaries using ranked choice voting (the other five either did not have a primary or ran in a two-person primary). That reinforced RepresentWomen's previous finding that women fare better in ranked choice elections.
The proof is in the results. New York, a city with an embarrassing history of gender inequity, has made stunning strides in a single election. Now there are 31 women on the council — that's more than double the 14 who served on the previous city council – and 25 of them are women of color.
Even further, Black and Hispanic/Latino candidates went on to win six out of eight city or borough-wide races. Latino representation has also increased from 11 members to 15. LGBTQ+ candidates won a record six seats. And seven of the new council members are New Yorkers who were born in another country, up from four. Asian representation tripled, from two members to six.
Women have long been told to wait our turn. Our turn is now. Women have long been told that they will split the vote and have been cast against one another. With RCV, split votes are a thing of the past.
Election reformers can tinker around the edges and hope for the best. Or they can learn the lessons from New York: Change the rules, and you change the results.
Katie Usalis @KatieUsalis
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