Ranked-Choice Voting: 3 Takeaways From NYC's Big Experiment
It’s been a long, confusing few months, but the 2021 Democratic primary for mayor of New York City finally came to an end this week.
On Tuesday night, the city’s Board of Elections released new results including previously outstanding absentee ballots. The final, unofficial tally placed Eric Adams ahead of Kathryn Garcia by less than 8,500 votes. The margin was slim, but it was enough for the Associated Press to declare Adams the winner.
The AP’s call seemed especially significant considering how trust in the BOE cratered last week after the board botched the initial release of ranked-choice results, mistakenly including 135,000 test ballots (read: not real ballots). The BOE corrected the mistake a day later, but the confusion led many to wonder whether ranked-choice voting, which the city used in municipal primaries for the first time this year, may have been just a little too complicated for the city and its voters to handle.
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“All of the fears about [ranked-choice voting] being too complex were exposed, but it just wasn’t,” Rob Richie, ranked-choice advocate and CEO of FairVote, recently told Rolling Stone. “[The BOE] messed up. The conversation wasn’t what you wanted it to be about, which were the fundamentals, and the fundamentals were exceptionally positive from our perspective as far as voters and candidates adapting to a new system.”
In reality, there’s plenty of evidence indicating that ranked-choice voting was a huge success in its inaugural run in the nation’s largest city, and which bodes well for Richie and other advocates as they try to convince other localities around the country to adopt the election reform.
Here are a few key takeaways:
We have a better understanding of what voters wanted
It seemed like Eric Adams won in a landslide.
The divisive former cop who ran on a moderate platform built around public safety received 30.8 percent of first-place votes cast in person, good for a 9.5-point lead over Maya Wiley at the end of Election Day. This wasn’t the whole story, but it’s the only story we would have heard in a traditional election.
The preliminary ranked-choice results the Board of Elections released a week after the election made clear that despite all the first-place votes, Adams wasn’t particular popular among voters who didn’t put him at the top of their ballot. It came down to him and Kathryn Garcia, with the latter receiving the support of a whopping a whopping 72 percent of Maya Wiley’s voters who ranked either Garcia or Adams. Garcia also made up ground among fourth-place finisher Andrew Yang’s voters, 46 percent of which preferred Garcia to Adams or Wiley.
This put Garcia neck-and-neck with Adams, who days earlier looked like he was going to coast into City Hall. Garcia ultimately fell less than 8,500 votes shy of overtaking Adams, but the fact that she got so close was a testament to how well ranked-choice voting worked. Nearly half of New York City voters would have rather elected Garcia mayor over Adams, a preference that was not reflected in the initial first-place tally released on Election Day, and one which could — in theory, at least — affect how Adams governs the city.
“He may be more aware that he has to bring the city together,” Richie says of Adams. “It’ll be interesting to see who he appoints to his Cabinet and things like that, and whether that might reflect the fact that [while campaigning] he got to learn from engage with some of these different people.”
More candidates ran, more diverse candidates were elected
Ranked-choice voting is appealing in part because it encourages more candidates to run. Younger upstarts who want to get into politics don’t need to feel like they should stay on the sidelines so as not to siphon support from established players. This should theoretically result in elections shaped by deep fields of office-seekers representing a diversity of backgrounds, identities, and policy platforms. In New York City’s case, it did.
“What you saw, particularly for women and people of color, is that there wasn’t just one woman in these races, there were multiple women, and multiple people of color,” Richie says. “There were other reasons that that could happen, like public financing and had good organizing, but the the system often would get in the way of that.”
The results released Tuesday night speak for themselves. If they hold as expected, the City Council will feature a majority of women for the first time ever. Out of the 29 women expected to win Council seats, 26 are women of color, and 18 are women under the age of 40. Removing gender from the equation, 35 of the 51 City Council seats look like they’ll be occupied by people of color, and 29 will be occupied by people under the age of 40. As for the Democratic primaries for president of the five boroughs, two were won by people of color under 40, and another was won by a woman of color under 45.
“[Ranked-choice voting] went hand-in-hand with a set of changes in the political environment that allowed this phenomenal vote for change,” Richie adds. “The number of young people, the number of women, the number of people of color, the number of people of color from different countries of origin — it’s a remarkable change in the city’s political players, and ranked-choice voting was a key part of that.”
New Yorkers turned up at the polls, they weren’t confused by the ballot, and they liked ranked-choice voting
One often-cited criticism of ranked-choice voting is that, given how confusing it can seem, it could discourage people from voting at all. This was not the case in New York City last month, when around 950,000 people cast a ballot in the Democratic primary. This is about 26 percent of the city’s registered Democrats, an increase from the 22 percent (around 700,000) who showed up in to nominate Bill de Blasio for mayor in 2013. Turnout wasn’t great, but there’s certainly no evidence ranked-choice voting depressed it.
Another (more significant) criticism is the prospect of exhausted ballots. A ballot is exhausted when it does not include either of the final two candidates, thus rendering it inconsequential. This can happen if a voter really dislikes both candidates who wind up in the final two, or, more likely, when a voter doesn’t bother to rank five candidates.
According to Nate Cohn of The New York Times, just under 140,000 ballots did not include Adams or Garcia.
Cohn seems to be implying that there could have been enough voters who preferred Garcia over Adams to swing the election, but for whatever reason didn’t rank her. The concern here is that voters didn’t understand that it would have behooved them to rank all of the frontrunners in order to prevent their ballot being exhausted. For example, a progressive voter in favor of shrinking the NYPD’s budget who bubbled in Wiley’s name but left the rest of their ballot blank would have inadvertently helped the pro-cop Adams by not ranking Garcia. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop notes, nearly 74,000 of Wiley’s ballots were exhausted when she was eliminated. Adams won by less than 8,500 votes.
It’s not a stretch, then, to say that if all of Wiley’s voters had filled out their entire ballot, Garcia would have won the nomination. Then again, there’s no telling how many exhausted ballots for other candidates could have bumped up Adams’ vote total. We just don’t know, just like we don’t know why voters chose to leave slots on their ballots blank. Maybe they only liked one candidate and just wanted to go out and vote for them. If that’s the case, it’s fine. It doesn’t mean the system didn’t work.
Regardless, in a traditional election the voice of someone who voted only for Wiley would have died with Wiley’s chances anyway. Ranked-choice voting at least gives the option to weigh in on multiple candidates. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers exercised that option and impacted the vote in a way they wouldn’t have been able to in previous elections. According to an exit poll conducted by Edison Research, 83 percent of voters ranked at least two candidates. The same poll found that 95 percent of voters found the ballot “simple to complete,” while 77 percent want to use ranked-choice voting in future elections, more than the 73 percent who voted to implement it back in 2019.
As Richie puts it, “there was an embrace of the system.”
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