On an Election Day with few competitive races, New York City voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a new system of casting their ballots for some elections: ranked-choice voting.
QUICK FACTS: ELECTION DAY
New Yorkers City voters approved ranked-choice voting and the four other initiatives set forth by a City Charter Review Commission.
Democratic incumbent Jumaane Williams defeated Republican Staten Island Councilman Joe Borelli in the Public Advocate's race after winning the special election in February.
Democratic Queens Borough President Melinda Katz beat Republican defense attorney Joe Murray in the race for Queens district attorney after winning a hard-fought primary in June.
For the first time, over 60,000 ballots were cast over nine days before Election Day.
RANK YOUR CANDIDATES
Ranked-choice voting, the first of five proposed amendments to the city's charter (which is essentially its constitution), easily passed Tuesday night in the 2019 general election. Buoyed by a campaign from election reform advocates, ranked-choice voting will allow voters to rank candidates running for city office in order of preference.
The changes would affect only city primaries and special elections, and would go into effect starting in 2021 — right in time for the next mayoral election.
How will a winner be determined? If no candidate gets over 50 percent, the last-place finisher is eliminated and their votes transferred to the second-choice candidate on each ballot. The process repeats until there's a majority winner. The current system requires costly runoff elections when no candidate reaches 40 percent.
The proposal had support from good-government groups, the city's business sector, and some lawmakers who believed the changes would give way to cleaner — and even nicer — political campaigns and save money by eliminating runoff primaries.
The New York City Board of Elections had said it was prepared to implement the reforms if the measure was approved, although the board's executive director told Inside City Hall on Monday night that it could take more than a week to find out the winner in a close ranked-choice race.
In recent days, a rift had formed over Question Number One.
"I consider all of this a gentrification of our political process," Democratic Brooklyn Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo said at a rally.
Many members of the City Council's Black, Latino and Asian caucus came out against the measure, arguing it could hurt candidates of color, leading to sniping from colleagues:
"They're concerned about losing their seats. It's self-preservation," Democratic Brooklyn and Queens Councilman Antonio Reynoso said.
- Changes to the CCRB, Ethics, the Budget, and Public Review of Land Use Proposals: Learn More About the Other Ballot Measures
Four other ballot measures passed by wide margins Tuesday.
Question Two on the ballot called for bolstering the Civilian Complaint Review Board, or CCRB, the city's independent police oversight body.
It is aimed at protecting the CCRB's budget, allowing it to investigate false statements by officers, and requiring that the police commissioner explain disciplinary decisions that differ from the CCRB's recommendation.
Question Three creates a two-year lobbying ban for recently departed city officials, and limits the political activity of Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) members.
The city already saves money in the budget for the future in case there is an economic downturn or other unexpected costs. But Question Number Four officially creates a "rainy day fund." There's a catch: the city cannot use the funds unless the state legislature approves the measure. Question Four also protect the budgets of the public advocate and borough presidents.
And Question Five allows more time for community input in the land-use approval process.
Over a dozen proposals were packed into the five ballot measures overall, which is why it was difficult for voters to read the back of the ballot:
Broadly, Questions Two through Four will reduce the power of the mayor, by taking away two of his COIB picks and giving them to the city comptroller and Public Advocate, and allowing the City Council to approve the city's corporation counsel, who is charged with representing the interests of all city elected officials. Currently, the mayor appoints the counsel. Question Two also gives the Public Advocate a CCRB pick and allows the City Council to directly appoint CCRB members instead of waiting on the mayor's appointment.
THE LAST PUBLIC ADVOCATE ELECTION OF THE YEAR
The only citywide race in the general election pitted Democratic Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who won a special election for the seat in February, against Republican Staten Island Councilman Joe Borelli. In a heavily Democratic city, Williams cruised to re-election.
On the one hand, the Public Advocate is one of the city's highest-ranking jobs. It's one of just three citywide elected offices (the others are mayor and comptroller) and first in line of succession should something happen to the mayor.
On the other hand, it's a job with little real power and a vaguely defined mission. Essentially, the office functions as a city government watchdog and an ombudsperson for the public.
The Public Advocate investigates complaints and issues reports, and can also introduce legislation in the City Council, although he or she cannot vote on it. The Public Advocate can also preside over Council meetings, though not all have exercised that option.
In practice, the job is what the office-holder makes of it. It is a highly visible perch that allows its occupant to raise his or her profile without the messy complications of real governing. That makes it a good place for people who have their eyes on Gracie Mansion.
There had not been much action in the race between the two leading candidates. Williams and Borelli kept campaigning to a minimum, focusing on areas where they have the most support. The reason? A lack of money. As of mid-October, Williams was ahead with $133,008.64 while Borelli had raised only $42,959.40 — a majority of it from Staten Island supporters.
The candidates served together in the City Council, but they're vastly different on the political scale. Borelli is a President Donald Trump supporter and a regular guest on Fox News. Williams, a darling of the left, has previously supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The two also don't see eye-to-eye when it comes to the existential question: should the office of Public Advocate exist?
Partially because of the costly special election for the office, some New York City lawmakers have expressed support for a bill to eliminate the job altogether, arguing its lack of real power makes it a waste of taxpayer money.
Borelli didn't rule out that possibility on the campaign trail. He said if the Public Advocate was not given a larger role in city government, such as being a check on the mayor, then the city should abolish the office. Borelli argued the city comptroller could be first in line to succeed the mayor. To the Republican, the Public Advocate should not exist simply to wait for a mayor to leave office.
On that point, Williams agrees. He also wants the city to give the Public Advocate greater power, such as the ability to subpoena city government and vote in the City Council. In addition, he's moved to reorganize the office so deputy Public Advocates can help constituents organize and advocate for their priorities, such as housing and education. To that end, he calls for the city to pour more money into the Public Advocate's budget.
A special election was held for the office in February after the previous officeholder, Letitia James, was elected attorney general. However, due to New York City election law, that election did not give Williams the office for the rest of the term. All told, the Public Advocate elections — when including public matching funds for all the candidates that ran in February — were estimated to cost over $15 million, according to the city's Board of Elections.
Williams will now be the Public Advocate through the end of 2021, as long as he does not leave office early. Voters will head to the polls in 2021 to elect all citywide elected officials for four-year terms.
A NEW TOP PROSECUTOR IN QUEENS
In Queens, Borough President Melinda Katz won the open district attorney seat against Republican longshot Joe Murray. Katz will be the first woman DA in Queens history.
In many regards, the real race for the seat was in the summer, when Katz narrowly won a long and drawn-out Democratic primary that was heavily focused on criminal justice reform, including ways to properly close the jail complex on Rikers Island. Katz had to go to a recount to win after Public Defender Tiffany Cabán initially declared victory in June.
Murray, a criminal defense attorney and former police officer, is a registered Democrat who received special authorization for run on the GOP line, but he is mostly the polar opposite of Katz. While the Democratic candidate supported some of the criminal justice reforms becoming popular around the nation, such as ending cash bail, decriminalizing marijuana, and not prosecuting sex workers, Murray campaigned on a tough-on-crime platform. He argues cash bail is necessary and that the city needs the "Broken Windows" style of cracking down on low-level offenses, such as possessing marijuana, to keep crime down.
The Queens district attorney is in charge of a team of prosecutors that handles all criminal cases in the borough.
It's a job with a direct and practical effect on Queens residents. A DA determines which crimes are prosecuted — and how severely. If someone is charged in Queens with a crime, such as assault, the DA's office handles the prosecution, determines if bail is required, and can even decide to drop the charge altogether.
District attorneys' offices have become spaces for criminal justice reforms in recent years. Some DAs around the nation, whom local ones are emulating, have begun enforcing new agendas to reduce jail populations and hand out less severe punishments for non-violent offenses. For example, some district attorneys in New York City recently decided to not prosecute people for smoking or possessing marijuana.
With Katz's election to district attorney, Queens will need to hold a special election to replace her as borough president.
EARLY VOTING FOR THE FIRST TIME
Besides those three main attractions, it was mostly a sleepy Election Day. Democratic Brooklyn Councilwoman Farah Louis easily defeated third-party candidates, while the Bronx DA, Staten Island DA, and candidates for most judicial seats ran unopposed.
Most voters did not report significant problems or long lines at poll sites:
The only other bit of intrigue with the elections this fall was the advent of early voting. For the first time, New Yorkers cast their ballots over nine days ahead of Election Day instead of showing up for the usual 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on one day. 60,110 voters cast ballots between October 26 and November 3, according to the New York City Board of Elections.
Early voting had long been at the top of election reform advocates' wish-lists, and the demands for change grew louder after hours-long crowds in the city on Election Day 2018 amid massive turnout for the hotly-contested midterm races:
A few months after those long lines, Democrats, who gained a majority in the New York state legislature, passed a series of election reforms that included early voting.
Supporters argued early voting would increase turnout and reduce lines on Election Day. New York was among the worst 10 states for turnout in both the 2016 and 2018 elections, continuing a long trend of lower-than-average voter participation. New York was one of only 13 states in the United States that did not allow early voting before this year.
The process of voting was mostly the same, although the ballot was on demand so voters signed an electronic poll book at their polling site like they would a traditional hardcover book.
The ballot was then printed, and the rest of the process remained the same.
The city operated 61 early voting polling sites in the five boroughs. The 2019 general election was considered a dry run for the next most likely time most New Yorkers will have the opportunity to vote early: April, in the run-up to the presidential primary.
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