Maya Wiley is a civil rights lawyer and a former candidate for New York mayor.
She did not have a question for me. She did not want a selfie — the other common request. She wanted only to grab my hand, and with an intense stare she said, “I haven’t voted in years, but I’m going to vote for you.” I don’t know her name, but I will never forget the depth of her resolve and her need for me to know this truth. She felt hope.
As a Black woman and civil rights attorney, I had many emotional experiences during the campaign that just ended. But my brief Harlem encounter was one of the most humbling. I had a real shot at becoming the 110th mayor in a city that had elected 109 men, and only one of those a person of color. In an unprecedented race held during a pandemic, with more than 30 candidates, a shortened election cycle and less name recognition than other top contenders, I came in third. But ranked-choice voting (RCV) was neither an explanation for the outcome nor an impediment to Black women winning in the future.
In 2019, New York City voters voted to adopt RCV by a 3-to-1 margin. It’s a system that allows voters to choose more than one candidate in their order of preference. If a candidate gets a majority of votes, he or she wins the primary. If not, there is an “instant runoff” as the lowest vote-getter is eliminated and the ballots of his or her supporters are redistributed to voters’ second choices. This was the first time America’s largest city used RCV and a Black man, Eric Adams, the Brooklyn Borough president, is the presumptive winner of the Democratic primary.
This is significant for two reasons. First, Adams is likely to become only the second Black mayor. Second, many Black leaders expressed their fear that RCV would split the Black vote and that none of the Black candidates, of which there were several choices, would win. That didn’t happen, and the research shows that Black candidates who run against other Black candidates have higher win rates in RCV elections. Simply by running, nontraditional candidates like me can inspire voters like the women I met in Harlem into voting. That gives us a greater chance of winning. too. London Breed became the first Black female mayor of San Francisco and Jean Quan became the first Asian female mayor of Oakland in an RCV system, despite odds stacked heavily against them and political machines working for others.
This election was a blow to voters who hoped it would shatter the glass ceiling in New York. Yet Kathryn Garcia and I were two of the top three candidates on primary night. In the post-election punditry and in conversation with residents, I hear a lot of RCV bashing. Yet 29 women of all races are now poised to enter the 51-seat City Council thanks, in part, to RCV. Currently there are only 14!
Doubts about RCV are not new. Many elected leaders of color vigorously oppose it. In fact, many Black leaders I admire have been wary of ranked-choice voting and even sued to prevent its implementation in this election. Critics have raised concerns about voters of color being confused about the system or ranking only one candidate, which denies them political voice in an instant runoff.
Make no mistake, this election was unprecedented: From covid-19 to the first June primary (it’s usually in September) and an inept Board of Elections (BOE) riddled with cronyism, it was a painful primary. From refusing to hire experts to help administer the new computer system for RCV, to the lunacy of sharing results without having counted all ballots, the BOE deserves castigation and badly needs reform. Jurisdictions implementing RCV elsewhere should commit resources to voter outreach and education well before an election and focus their education efforts on the elderly and communities of color. Online resources are inadequate with a persistent digital divide.
Yes, it is still difficult for women, particularly women of color, to win citywide office in New York and statewide races around the country. And there can be no question that our democracy is in peril. Sixty percent of Republicans believe the 2020 presidential election was “stolen,” and too many states are adopting sweeping voter suppression laws predicated on a lie that voter fraud is real. What is at stake this year, notes Sherrilyn Ifill, head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, is “the very future of the full citizenship and dignity of Black people in this country.”
But alarm bells over RCV miss the point. Making it easier to vote, educating voters and encouraging a new pipeline of diverse candidates who are not beholden to powerful interests are the tools that will guarantee our democracy.
The woman who stopped me on that Harlem corner was inspired to vote by hope, not denied her franchise by RCV. And that must be our future.