Political strategist Julie Hootkin '95, P'29 spoke with Spence students during an Upper School assembly as part of an ongoing series designed to engage Upper School students in issues surrounding local elections. Speaking with Director of Teaching and Learning Eric Zahler, Hootkin outlined the logistics and anticipated effects of ranked-choice voting, new to the upcoming New York City mayoral primary.
A partner at Global Strategy Group, Hootkin works with campaigns and candidates running for office to understand what’s on voters’ minds. “We help them figure out a little bit about what the electorate is thinking. Who are their core supporters?” Hootkin also works with advocacy organizations to elevate the public discourse around their specific issues. She first became interested in politics while a student at Spence, taking classes that introduced her to the literature of civil rights. She describes that first introduction as “a marriage of my interest in politics with what makes people tick, sorting through public opinion on big issues and how public opinion evolves over time...the rest is history.”
Currently, Hootkin is focused on the city’s decision—more than 70% of New Yorkers voted for it—to implement ranked-choice voting in the upcoming mayoral primary election. Part of the excitement surrounding the election, Hootkin said, is the size of a city as large as New York implementing a new way of selecting its leader. “New York is the biggest city to test drive this now. Lots will be watching.”
Not only will all eyes be on the city, but also on the many candidates who have entered the race as well. “There are at least 10 major candidates in the democratic primary,” Hootkin explained. “What happens when a lot of people run is the votes get split. In the old system, someone could win with only the support of a third of the voters. The new system is empowering to voters because they have more say in who gets elected.”
The voters aren’t the only ones reaping benefits of the new voting system. Hootkin shared with students that previously, the city required runoff elections when a single candidate earned less than 40% of the total vote. “There are a lot of inefficiencies with putting on all of those elections. Ranked-choice voting is much more cost effective for the city.”
Theoretically, Hootkin pointed out, there is a likely decrease in contentious campaigning, since attacking a competitor might mean a candidate loses out on second or third place. “Ultimately you need to build the biggest coalition possible. It’s great for voters who need to hear more from candidates. In theory, all of these campaigns should be more positive, since there’s no incentive for negative campaigning. You run the risk of backlash for that.”
But are the campaigns less contentious?
Yes and no, Hootkin said. “People are more hesitant to engage in negative campaigning, but there’s also, sadly, still value in that.” Pointing out a competitor’s deficiencies and drawing contrast may help voters learn who the candidates are, which bumps up their name identification, a crucial element when voters are given the opportunity to select multiple candidates. “Often the most well-known candidates are top of mind, so when you go into rank people, there’s an inclination to tend toward people whose names you know,” she shared. “Will some of the lesser-known candidates begin to draw contrast to elevate their name identification?”
Hootkin also explained that while there’s research suggesting that ranked-choice voting ultimately delivers a more diverse set of candidates, there are theories that this larger spectrum of options can negatively affect the most liberal or most conservative candidates at the polls. “You have to campaign to have a broad appeal,” Hootkin said. “There’s some notion that people who can communicate most broadly will benefit from the system.” This would mean those candidates farther from center could have a smaller base at the polls.
When asked whether she thought the transition to ranked-choice voting was a win for democracy, there was no hesitation. “How can it not be?” Hootkin answered. “There’s a lot of encouraging signs, and there’s still a ton that we don’t know about, especially what this looks like in practice for a city as big as New York. But I think it’s exciting, and people like me live for this stuff.”
All mayoral candidates have been invited to participate in the series, which will continue with mayoral candidate Ray McGuire. The Development Office has been instrumental in collaborating with the Civics Club in arranging guest speakers for this series.