RCV in NYC: Did it change the election, the campaigns, or the media coverage?
Ranked Choice Voting — or RCV — is a hot topic in democratic circles lately. To give a refresher, RCV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference on their ballot. When no one candidate wins a majority of votes, the lowest vote-earner is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to the voters’ next preference. As voters’ candidates are eliminated, their next ranked candidate is put forth as their vote, and tallies proceed in this fashion until a winner is determined. The process ensures the winner will reflect support from a majority of voters.
There is a lot we are learning about RCV, and momentum is building as more communities approve and adopt it for their elections. Advocates for RCV have long upheld its benefits for democratic practice, including its ability to guarantee a majority winner, increase competition among candidates, and increase civility between candidates. In June, nearly one million New Yorkers voted in the primary for mayor and all other city offices, making it the largest and most diverse application of RCV in an election to-date.
With clarity of hindsight and on the heels of the general election in New York City, PACE, Democracy Funders Network, and Philanthropy New York hosted a discussion in early November that explored and reflected on how RCV played out in the primary — particularly its impact on the culture surrounding the election. Joined by a political researcher, a campaign manager, a reporter with a government beat, and a local organizer, we explored questions like: Did it change the way people engaged in or felt about the electoral process? The way candidates campaigned? The way the media covered the election? Here are our major takeaways:
- Research conducted after the New York City primary shows promising indicators that RCV was a helpful tool for engaging citizens in the democratic process of voting. Overall, 83% of primary voters chose to rank candidates, with 42% ranking five candidates (the maximum number allowable). Almost all voters said it was simple to vote using RCV, with 95% saying it was very simple or somewhat simple. Only 3% said they didn’t rank candidates because they didn’t understand the ballot. These are helpful numbers to understand, especially as many of the headlines after the election focused on the mistakes and blunders of the New York Board of Elections. However, panelists agreed — and these numbers seem to support — that those issues were not the cause or effect of RCV, but rather, they signaled a need to professionalize the bureau and ensure its infrastructure and capacity is strong moving forward.
- There was consensus among the panelists that while the hope was that RCV would produce more civil discourse during the campaigns, they did not believe that happened. However, two other shifts were observed. First, RCV diminished the extent that candidates “wrote off” parts of the city. As one panelist shared: “Just like a run-off scenario, candidates didn’t know which 50% they needed, so it caused candidates to appeal to every part of the city regardless if they thought they were the first choice of that community.” Second, the dynamic of candidate partnerships impacted the media coverage of the campaign. As another panelist shared: “Usually we’re looking for candidates to attack or ignore each other, but when you’re looking for partnerships to form, the media has to take all candidates seriously. We had to see a bigger strategy on the alliances candidates were trying to form.”
- Candidates themselves were a major factor in how RCV rolled out in New York City this summer. The way candidates talked about RCV, educated voters about RCV, and campaigned on how to rank them on the ballot mattered — and was sometimes inconsistent. For example, one panelist shared: “We found out post-election that some voters only voted for one mayoral candidate because they were hearing that RCV would hurt their top candidate. And those same voters would rank multiple candidates for city council based on how their candidates were advertising. Candidates were sending mixed messages in social media and materials.”
- Proponents of RCV say it encourages more diverse candidates to run for office, and the most diverse city council was elected in New York City’s history after this election; but is it fair to claim that was the impact of RCV? The panelists were not sure, and they acknowledged that the increase in diversity was also attributed to the changes in New York City’s Matching Funds Program, which lowered the need for candidates to get private funds to match. But there was speculation that RCV helped in some ways. While there is still much to explore, one panelist shared an important perspective: “District 11 in the Bronx had its first person of color run. She didn’t win, but she won 2nd in RCV. Her participation in the election forced dominant candidates to answer questions they wouldn’t usually pay attention to. Sometimes the ability to shape the narrative is important enough.”
- RCV contributed to a historically large candidate field in New York City, with each race averaging a field of 6.5 candidates — over 2.5 times the 2017 average of 2.6 candidates. With more candidates in the field, questions arose about the civic education component of RCV. How did voters understand the different candidates they had to choose from? Did any sort of infrastructure emerge to support voters in learning about candidates? There was consensus from panelists that the infrastructure still needs significant building in New York City. They pointed to the hollowing out of the media, and how that deprives candidates and voters alike. They also acknowledged that while the Board of Elections puts out candidate information, it’s limited in accessibility. This means CBOs are a necessary part of the election ecosystem — translating materials, distilling information, getting it to more people, answering questions — and CBOs need year-round support. As one panelist urged: “I invite everyone to think about what it means to build infrastructure all year-round, so when people are coming in to vote, they have been thinking about it for a while and can’t wait to vote.”