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New York’s mayoral primary puts ranked-choice voting under the national spotlight

This week, New York City held primary elections for mayor, comptroller and a number of other citywide offices. This was a big test for ranked-choice voting, which was utilized for the first time in New York City.

In terms of how ranked-choice voting works, voters rank their top choices for candidates — first through fifth — rather than selecting just one candidate. If a candidate receives a majority of the first-choice votes, that candidate wins. However, if there is no majority winner of the first-choice vote, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate as their first choice will have their second choice votes count. This process continues until there is a majority winner.

I have been a longtime advocate for ranked-choice voting, and believe it is a viable solution to the problems created by our current first-past-the-post system. My firm, Schoen-Cooperman Research, has also worked on referenda aimed at passing ranked-choice voting in cities and states across the country.

I support the method because, by design, it delivers a more representative outcome and gives voters more choice than a winner-take-all system. In addition, ranked-choice voting discourages negative campaigning and elects fewer extreme candidates. 

To that end, one might ask: how successful is this process when put into practice, given what we currently know about the results of New York City’s first ranked-choice voting election?

On one hand, the jury is still out, as we will not know the final results of many races for several more days, if not weeks. On the other hand, we can say with confidence that it was a positive first ranked-choice voting initiative out of the box.

In the highly anticipated Democratic primary race for mayor, as of today, Eric Adams leads the first-round count in the Democratic primary for mayor with 31.7 percent, followed by Maya Wiley in second with 22.3 percent, Kathryn Garcia in third with 19.5 percent and Andrew Yang in fourth with 11.7 percent. All other candidates are in the single digits.

Though we don’t know the ultimate winner, Adams’ strong performance in the first round is indicative of a strong performance overall. Further, based on ranked-choice voting initiatives in other states and cities, the first-place first-choice finisher has a strong chance of winning.

If Adams does win, we will be able to say that ranked-choice voting played a role in helping one of the more centrist candidates get elected — rather than an extreme progressive candidate. 

And encouragingly, based on what we know now, ranked-choice voting seems to have prevailed against one of main concerns of the opponents. Opponents worried that the process was too novel and that there was not enough time to educate New Yorkers, especially in Black and Brown communities. Opponents feared that this would lead to unrepresentative outcomes, whereby mostly white candidates prevail who are elected by mostly white voters.

While we cannot say with certainty how the turnout numbers will shake out, we can say that two Black candidates for citywide office — Adams for mayor and Jumaane Williams for public advocate — are likely to prevail in the primary process.

Notably, ranked-choice voting did encourage something novel in New York politics — two candidates campaigning together. Garcia and Yang campaigned together in the final weeks of the race, coming together in hopes of winning over the other candidate’s supporters’ second and third choices. 

Given that Yang already conceded the race after a disappointing first-round finish, it is unclear how effective this strategy was in this particular instance. However, in the San Francisco mayor’s race in 2018, candidate alliances did shake up the race notably.

After the first-round, current mayor London Breed (D) had 37 percent, Mark Leno (D) had 24 percent. But then, after the second and third choice rounds were tallied, Leno added more than 50,000 votes to his tally, while Breed added less than half of that amount, which enabled Leno to catch up.

In large part, this was due to the fact that Leno campaigned with a fellow progressive, Jane Kim (D), with whom he ended up splitting the vote, allowing him to catch up to Breed. In the end, Leno conceded, but lost to Breed by just 2,500 votes. 

In many ways, the alliances that ranked-choice voting encourages help not only ensure that preferences held by the majority make their way into government, but also help discourage negative campaigning. 

Regrettably, though, while much of the mayoral campaign was civil, ranked-choice voting did not completely curb negative campaigning in the Democratic primary for mayor. The last several weeks of the campaign took an ugly turn, as candidates attacked and teamed up against Eric Adams, who was widely seen as the front-runner. 

Ultimately, a great deal of what has been discussed here is liable to change once the tabulation has been completed. However, we can at least say with certainty that ranked-choice voting gave New York primary voters more choice and the chance to elect a more representative government. If nothing else, that is a step in the right direction for our democracy.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an advisor to President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. His new book is “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.”

Tags Andrew Yang Elections Electoral systems Instant-runoff voting Michael Bloomberg ranked voting Single transferable vote Single-winner electoral systems Voting

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