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In NYC, ranked choice voting succeeded

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New York City recently completed highly successful primary elections using ranked choice voting for the first time. The results were historic.

If Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams wins in the fall, as expected in this overwhelmingly blue city, he will become New York’s only second Black mayor. He begins the fall campaign — and then the hard work to rebuild New York after a pandemic — in an even stronger position thanks to ranked choice voting, having already assembled a multi-racial, working-class coalition of voters. The final data will show he earned an affirmative ranking from a super-majority of primary voters in a 13-candidate field.

The city council, meanwhile, will undergo an inspiring shift of its own. Women are projected to more than double their current 14 seats, and the council will have a female majority for the first time ever. Twenty-six of those 29 women are women of color. Eighteen of them are under the age of 40, joining 11 men under 40. People of color won a record 40 of 59 Democratic nominations in city elections. Ranked choice voting helped elevate new voices and brought a rising generation into power for the first time.

Turnout soared past the number of voters who participated in the city’s last contested mayoral race, in 2013. Edison Research’s exit poll found that more than 95 percent of voters called ranked choice voting easy, and 77 percent said they wanted to use it again. Worries by some naysayers that ranked choice voting would be too confusing, too time-consuming, or harm representation of people of color all proved unfounded.

Yet being wrong — repeatedly — about ranked choice voting’s effects hasn’t stopped some naysayers and defenders of the old way of doing things. Now, they’re complaining about the number of “exhausted ballots” — the 140,167 voters who did not rank either of the final two Democratic candidates, Adams or runner-up Kathryn Garcia. Some have even wondered whether “exhausted ballots” tipped the race to Adams, since he won by fewer than 9,000 votes.

This simply isn’t the case, and it’s a poor use of the data, the history and the political science. Ranked choice voting made New York City’s primaries stronger, more inclusive and generated more participation at every step along the way. It allowed New Yorkers — faced with 13 Democratic candidates for mayor — to cast a stronger and more strategic voice. It avoided a low plurality winner and determined the candidate with both the broadest and deepest support.

New York gave voters the opportunity to rank up to five candidates. When no one from the large field won a majority in the first round, it triggered a series of automatic runoffs in which the lowest-placing candidates were eliminated and their supporters’ backup choices came into play, until the field was reduced to Adams and Garcia, head-to-head.

Under New York’s previous system, New Yorkers would have had only one selection. Because no candidate in this large field crossed the 40 percent threshold, voters would have been called back to the polls for a late summer runoff between the two top vote-getters.

Those ballots weren’t “exhausted.” Edison Research’s exit survey found that 17 percent of voters indicated only one choice, and most of them did so while fully aware of other candidates. Perhaps they were among the nearly 250,000 additional voters than the primary electorate in either of Bill de Blasio’s wins.

New Yorkers were allowed to rank five of 13 candidates: those voters simply chose not to rank Adams or Garcia in that tier. It’s not that they didn’t have a say between those two. They had five times as many opportunities to choose one as they would have — and still didn’t. The idea that 140,000 voters who didn’t consider either finalist in the top five of 13 candidates would have shown up in a late summer ballot in numbers decisive enough to tip the balance is a stretch. Those voters had the opportunity to make their preference clear, five times.

Runoff elections are often low-turnout affairs, despite tens of millions spent by taxpayers, a surge of negative attacks fueled by independent expenditures and burdens on voters. According to a FairVote study of every primary runoff for the U.S. House and U.S. Senate between 1994 and 2020, turnout declined in 240 of 248 races. That’s 97 percent. The average decline? Some 38 percent.

New York’s runoff would likely have been pushed off to late August to accommodate new state rules involving early voting and absentee voting. That’s some two months after the original election. The FairVote study found that runoffs held between 31 and 40 days after the initial primary had a median turnout decline over three times higher than runoffs held between 11 and 20 days after the first race.

We also know that the turnout decline hits hardest in communities of color, where the burdens of turning out a second time — from time off work to child care to longer precinct lines — are noticeably more significant. In 2020 runoff elections, turnout among people of color decreased by an average of 43.5 percent from the initial primary.

This makes runoff elections a less accurate representation of the electorate’s will than ranked choice voting. And given the precipitous and predictable turnout decrease, it’s entirely likely that about 350,000 of the 941,796 primary voters wouldn’t have bothered showing up a second time — That’s nearly three times the number of “exhausted” ballots.

New Yorkers know this runoff math far too well. After all, ranked choice voting gained momentum there in 2013 after the last citywide runoff cost $13 million and still suffered a catastrophic decline in turnout. When no one cleared 40 percent in the first round of the public advocate race that year, voters were asked back to the polls three weeks later. Turnout collapsed by 61.7 percent from the 691,801 who voted for mayor in the first round. Barely 200,000 votes were cast. The cost of the runoff exceeded the public advocate’s budget by a factor of five. New Yorkers searched for a better way. With ranked choice voting, they found it.

It made elections better up and down the ballot. Of 54 contested Democratic primaries, 39 had first-round leaders under 50 percent; 26 of those fell below New York’s old runoff threshold of 40 percent. Fully 11 candidates would have won with less than 30 percent. Two of those first-round leaders ended up losing in instant runoff tallies designed to ensure more representative outcomes. This is real progress.

Ranked choice voting is new to New York, and to many media pundits. It’s only to be expected that some of the analysis will be fuzzy the first time around. Also, the Board of Elections made two unforced errors that won’t be repeated: delaying when preliminary ranked choice voting tallies were first reported and botching that release by mixing in real ballots with dummy ballots from an earlier test run.

But the facts are clear. With ranked choice voting, New Yorkers turned out in dramatic numbers, ranked candidates in dramatic numbers, elected historic slates to the city council, and determined which of 13 mayoral candidates had the best support city-wide. They did all of this in one election. They resolved runoffs without suffering a decline in turnout. Every voter who wanted a say had up to five times as much voice as they would have had under the old rules.

That’s not “exhaustion.” It’s exhilarating.

Rob Richie is president and CEO and Dave Daley is senior advisor of FairVote, a nonpartisan organization that researches and advances voting reforms to secure better elections for all.

Tags Bill de Blasio Elections electoral reform Eric Adams New York City ranked voting Ranked-choice voting in the United States Single-winner electoral systems Voting

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