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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: NYC Uses Ranked Choice Voting

In New York City’s recent primary a new system of voting was implemented: ranked choice voting (RCV).  RCV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, instead of limiting their decision to one candidate.  The new system was put in place after New York City voters overwhelmingly approved it (73.5%) for municipal and primary elections in 2019.  RCV is rare in the U.S., existing in several municipalities as well as in the states of Maine and Alaska.

Here’s how the NYC RCV system works:  Voters can choose to list up to five candidates in descending preference.  The New York City Board of Elections (BOE) then tabulates the votes.  A candidate who receives more than 50% of the vote wins.  If no candidate exceeds 50% in the first round of voting, counting continues.  In the second round, the candidate who received the fewest votes is dropped from consideration and that candidate’s votes are applied to the remaining candidates.  For the voters whose candidate was eliminated, their votes are redistributed based on their second choices.  If no candidate still garners 50%, then a third round is calculated, eliminating the candidate with the fewest votes, and redistributing those votes to the remaining candidates.  The process continues until one candidate’s vote count exceeds 50%.   

Proponents of the new system successfully argued that RCV gives voters more choices, that candidates are more likely to cooperate since they would not want to alienate other candidates’ voters.  Why?  Because if they are not a voter’s first preference they would want to be listed as a second or third choice since that may still help them to win the election.  Lastly, proponents argued that the RCV system would save money.  Prior to this new system, if no citywide candidate received 50% of the vote, a runoff election was held – and running elections costs money.

How did the new system perform?  There is good and bad news.  The good news is that despite fears it would be too complicated, New Yorkers overwhelmingly found it easy and straightforward to rank.  Primary turnout hit its highest levels in more than 20 years.  The mayoral race attracted a wide range of high-quality candidates, and quite a lot of media attention. The race was interesting because it was uncertain and competitive — and it was uncertain and competitive in large part because of ranked-choice voting.  Dynamic, competitive races lead to higher turnout. More voters are engaged, and more votes matter.

And according to a voter survey, New Yorkers liked the system.  In a survey jointly released by Common Cause/NY and Rank the Vote NYC, and based on exit polling conducted by Edison Research, 77% of New Yorkers want RCV in future local elections, 95% of voters found their ballot simple to complete, and 78% said they understood RCV extremely or very well.

On the negative side, the agency responsible for running the RCV election – New York City’s Board of Elections – has so far done a poor job.  The City’s BOE, which was established decades ago, has been long criticized as incompetent and too focused on the needs of the two major political parties, not the needs of voters.  The criticisms originate with the structure of the BOE. 

The NYC BOE – like all of the state’s local elections agencies – is run jointly by the two major political parties.  The commissioners are usually chosen due to their partisan loyalty, not their ability to competently run elections.  Of course, that does not mean that all elections commissioners and board staff cannot do a competent job – there are some that are quite skilled – but that the process of appointing them is far too likely to reward partisan loyalists. 

As a result of this system that rewards the party faithful – not necessarily what’s best for elections administration – polls across the state have been plagued with errors, incompetence, and too often illegalities.  New York City has not been immune.

For example, in 2016 the NYC BOE mistakenly purged 200,000 people from voting rolls, which led to some voters waiting in four-hour lines to cast their ballots.  In 2020, the BOE sent out 100,000 absentee ballots to voters, but with incorrect names and addresses.

In this year’s June Democratic primary, the BOE included 135,000 test ballots in the preliminary unofficial release of ranked-choice voting results.  After the error was identified, the BOE took down the faulty tabulations.  But the damage was done – giving RCV opponents an excuse to criticize the new system itself and cast doubt on the election results.

Of course, the BOE error in reporting the preliminary count has nothing to do with RCV.  BOE’s mistake was the result of human error.  It’s incomprehensibly incompetent, but it’s not a failure of RCV. 

New Yorkers are still waiting for the final results of the June Democratic primary election – absentee ballots still need to be counted and those RCV votes tabulated.  But until then, and despite the underwhelming performance of the NYC BOE, ranked-choice voting has passed its first test – City voters liked it, it reduced elections costs, and may even have begun to move toward a less toxic election cycle.  For other municipalities with run-off elections, it serves as a positive option. 

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