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Election Reform and New York City

The Fight Over Ranked-Choice Voting in New York City

Making sense of the rollout in the nation’s largest metropolis.

Counting ranked-choice ballots, 1950. Source: Robert Burnham, “Women and Reform in Cincinnati,” Ohio Valley History (2013).

The largest ranked-ballot rollout ever will occur on June 22, when New York City’s registered Democrats use ranked-choice voting (RCV) in their nominating primaries. (Note: early voting has been underway since June 12, and some special elections already have been RCV.) Eyes are on the mayoral race, and nobody can say who will win. That’s because the field is fragmented, and voters’ lower rankings remain unpredictable. One thing can be predicted, however: a three-way fight over what the outcome means.

Nothing said here is meant to hurt feelings. Good people are working hard to make sure voters understand the system. Beyond that, all the world is a stage, and everyone has their part.

Reformers will downplay a plurality winner

For a true believer, the goal is more jurisdictions with ranked ballots. That means showing that the system worked, which means a majority winner in this case.

RCV critics will hop onto the fact that the winner did not have a majority of total ballots cast. My back-of-envelope calculation, based on a now-dated cross-tab, suggested we might see a third of ballots not continue to the final-round count. (I haven’t looked at Emerson’s latest data, so do not hang your hat on that. But kudos to them for making such analyses possible.) While there is nothing inherently wrong with such an outcome, critics believe this line of attack pulls the rug from under RCV.

Reformers will respond in several ways. One is to note that voters were limited to ranking just five candidates. (Critics will respond that many voters didn’t use all five.) Another is to say that candidates and voters need time to adapt. We also may hear about low first-round turnout under the old two-round primary system, then how RCV obviates that differential.

These points aren’t necessarily wrong. It’s just that they’re predictable.

Mainstream Democrats will attack ranked ballots

It’s no secret that party operatives are hostile to RCV. They fear what it might to do their “invisible primary,” a period of elite coordination in advance of voters’ voting.

As just noted, we’ll hear about ballot exhaustion. We’ll also hear about voter error — skipped rankings, duplicate rankings, and so on. There probably won’t be a lot of this (please skim the literature), but there will be efforts to correlate it with precinct-level demographics. We’ll hear that older voters, on average, were more likely to be perplexed.

Again, none of these points are necessarily wrong. It’s just that they’re predictable — especially, perhaps, if a Working Families candidate wins the nomination.

Conservatives will pitch nonpartisan elections

Republicans support RCV insofar as it greases the wheels for various “top-X” systems. They seem to have two goals. One is to put distance between ‘moderates’ and the party brand (which is Trump). Another is to influence Democratic nominations, especially in places that are heavily Democratic (e.g., the Big Apple).

We will hear that Republicans and unaffiliated voters were “disenfranchised” by the closed primary. We will hear about the #PrimaryProblem, that primary voters are extremists, etc. There will be calls to switch to the ‘Alaska model,’ which eliminates nominations entirely (but uses RCV after a plurality winnowing round).

All of this may be more likely if Eric Adams loses to a come-from-behind victor.

In short…

…there are interesting things happening. Many of them may be down-ballot and are not covered here.

But one really interesting thing will be the meaning that gets made of New York City ranked-choice voting.

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Jack Santucci

Jack Santucci

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Political scientist at Drexel University. American party politics and electoral reform.