New York state court upholds ranked-choice voting for Feb. municipal special election in NYC

Ballot Bulletin by Ballotpedia

New York: State court upholds ranked-choice voting for Feb. municipal special election in NYC

On Dec. 16, 2020, a state trial court declined to block the implementation of ranked-choice voting in the municipal special election scheduled for Feb. 2. 

What’s at issue 

On Nov. 5, 2019, New York City voters approved a charter amendment providing for the use of ranked-choice voting in municipal primary and special elections for the following offices:

  • Mayor
  • Public advocate
  • Comptroller
  • Borough president
  • City council

Voters approved the charter amendment 73.61% to 26.39%. Now, voters can rank up to five candidates for a given office in order of preference. A candidate who wins a majority of first-preference votes wins the election outright. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First-preference votes cast for the failed candidate are eliminated, raising the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots. A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes. The process repeats until a candidate wins an outright majority.

On Dec. 8, 2020, a group of plaintiffs, including several city council members, sued the New York City Board of Elections and the New York City Campaign Finance Board in the New York County Supreme Court, the trial court for Manhattan. The plaintiffs alleged the city’s “stated plan to use [ranked-choice voting] in violation of the City Charter’s requirements, if allowed to proceed, will deprive New York City’s limited-English proficient population of the right to vote for and elect candidates of their choice in violation of the Voting Rights Act.” The plaintiffs sought a temporary restraining order barring election officials from using ranked-choice voting, pending the development of a new rollout plan.

How the court ruled

On Dec. 16, Judge Carol Edmead rejected the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order. In her decision, Edmead first addressed questions over whether the court had jurisdiction to grant the plaintiffs’ requested remedy: 

As articulated by counsel for [the Defendants], CPLR § 6313(a) expressly provides that ‘[n]o temporary restraining order may be granted in an action…against a public officer, board or municipal corporation of the state to restrain the performance of statutory duties.’ Here, the Board of Elections is statutorily required by the New York City Charter §1057 (g) to use RCV with respect to ‘certain primary elections and elections for which nominations were made by independent nominating petitions,’ which would include the February 2, 2021 special election. As such, Defendants argue that this Court lacks jurisdiction to grant a stay. The Court notes that Plaintiffs do not concede that this Court lacks jurisdiction to grant an interim stay under CPLR § 6313(a) nor do they agree that this jurisdictional issue is not in dispute. However, as the issue of jurisdiction is yet unresolved, the Court is disinclined to grant an interim stay. 

Edmead also declined the plaintiffs’ request for an expedited hearing schedule: 

According to counsel for Defendants, the overseas ballots are scheduled to be dispersed in two days on December 18, 2020. The Court finds that it would be improvident to hold an expedited preliminary injunction hearing as it may delay the dispersing of the overseas ballots.

What comes next? 

On Dec. 17, 2020, the plaintiffs appealed Edmead’s decision to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, First Judicial Department. The appellate court has not yet taken any action on the appeal. 

The case name and number are Adams v. New York City (appellate court: pending; trial court: 160662/2020). 

Calif.: Appeals court affirms lower court ruling requiring district-based city council elections in Santa Clara

On Dec. 30, the California Sixth District Court of Appeal upheld a lower court’s ruling that Santa Clara’s at-large electoral system for city council seats violated the California Voting Rights Act. 

What’s at issue 

Section 14027 of the California Voting Rights Act provides that “an at-large method of election may not be imposed or applied in a manner that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election, as a result of the dilution or the abridgment of the rights of voters who are members of a protected class.” 

On Dec. 27, 2017, five Asian-American residents of Santa Clara sued the city in the Santa Clara County Superior Court, alleging that the at-large election system for city council seats violated Section 14027 of the California Voting Rights Act. Asian-Americans are a protected class under Section 14026 of that act. 

On June 16, 2018, Judge Thomas E. Kuhnle ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding the city liable for violating the act. The defendants appealed Kuhnle’s decision to the Sixth District Court of Appeal, arguing Kuhnle had “erred as a matter of law in concluding that racially polarized voting in five of 10 city council elections satisfied the standard for a cognizable voting rights claim, which requires a showing that the majority voting bloc in Santa Clara’s electorate ‘usually’ voted to defeat the candidate preferred by Asian-American voters.” 

In their appeal, the defendants cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1986 decision in Thornburg v. Gingles, which established the following criteria for proving vote dilution claims under the federal Voting Rights Act: 

  1. A minority group must demonstrate that it is large and compact enough to constitute a majority in a single-member district.
  2. A minority group must demonstrate that it is politically cohesive.
  3. A minority group must demonstrate that the majority group usually votes as a group to defeat the minority group’s preferred candidate.

The Sixth District heard oral argument in the case on Dec. 17, 2020. 

How the court ruled

A three-judge panel of the Sixth District unanimously affirmed the lower court’s decision. Judge Eugene Premo wrote the court’s opinion, which Judges Franklin Elia and Allison M. Danner joined. 

The City argues that apart from case law, simple logic contravenes the trial court’s application of the third Gingles factor. The City asserts that just as ‘[n]o one would say that a flipped coin “usually” lands on heads, because it is equally likely to land on tails,’ it cannot be said that Santa Clara’s city council elections are ‘usually’ characterized by racially polarized voting after the trial court found that to be true in only five of 10 elections. We find the City’s reasoning is sound in theory but flawed in practice. It ignores that whether a majority voting block is ‘usually’ able to defeat a cohesive minority group’s preferred candidate per Gingles third factor is not measured by mathematical formula but by the trial court’s searching assessment of statistical and other evidence presented. … It follows that the ‘usually’ threshold stated in the third Gingles factor does not as a matter of law preclude a determination of racially polarized voting when the factual findings point to an equal number of polarized and non-polarized elections over time.

Premo and Elia are Gov. George Deukmejian (R) appointees. Danner is a Gov. Jerry Brown (D) appointee. 

What comes next? 

Santa Clara City Attorney Brian Doyle said he was “obviously and understandably disappointed in the ruling.” He did not say whether the city would appeal the decision further.  

The case name and number are Yumori-Kaku et al. v. City of Santa Clara (appellate court: H046105; trial court: CV319862). 

Looking ahead: election policy legislation in 2021

With a new year underway, and state legislatures nationwide convening sessions over the next several weeks, let’s take a preliminary look at what kinds of election policy bills will be up for consideration this year.

Redistricting legislation: So far this year, we’ve tracked at least 16 redistricting-related bills up for consideration in state legislatures: four in New Jersey; three in New York; two each in Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington; and one in Indiana. 

Redistricting legislation in the United States, 2021 
Current as of Jan. 5, 2021

Electoral systems legislation: So far this year, we’ve tracked at least 22 bills dealing with electoral systems that are up for consideration in state legislatures: eight in New Jersey; three each in New York, Missouri, and Virginia; and one each in Florida, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah. 

Electoral systems legislation in the United States, 2021 
Current as of Jan. 5, 2021

Primary systems legislation: So far this year, we’ve tracked at least two bills dealing with primary systems that are up for consideration in state legislatures: one each in New Jersey and Virginia. 

Primary systems legislation in the United States, 2021 
Current as of Jan. 5, 2021