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Ranked-Choice Voting Gets A Prime-Time Shot Under New York City's Bright Lights

An important election takes place Tuesday in New York City.

But beyond who wins the mayoral primaries there, what happens could have consequences for how millions of Americans vote in the future.

That's because the city, for the first time, is using ranked-choice voting. The method, which allows voters to rank candidates by preference rather than selecting just their top choice, has gained some traction throughout the country, pushed by reformers who say it's a better election system.

New York City is by far the largest jurisdiction to implement ranked-choice voting, and that means it's about to go under a white-hot spotlight.

So what is it exactly, where has it been used, and what are the arguments for and against it?

What is ranked-choice voting?

In the system, voters get to rank their preferred candidates. New York City is having voters rank their top five — though voters are not required to choose five.

In the Democratic primary, there are 13 candidates on the ballot, while the Republican primary in the heavily Democratic city has just two candidates. New York now uses ranked-choice voting for primaries and special elections after almost three-quarters of voters approved its use in a 2019 ballot measure.

Most Americans are used to casting one vote for one person per office, and the person with the most votes wins. Ranking candidates is far more complicated, but advocates believe it is fairer and more accurately reflects the collective will of the majority.

Here's an example of a Democratic ballot that a New Yorker in Flushing, Queens (where your author is from), will see:

Can't see this visual? Click here.

How does it work?

  1. If someone gets 50% plus one after all the first-choice votes are counted, then the election is over and that candidate wins. 
  2. But if no one gets 50% plus one, it's on to Round 2.
  3. The person with the lowest number of first-place votes is eliminated, and that candidate's voters' second choices get redistributed as votes for other candidates.
  4. This reallocation of votes goes on until someone reaches 50% plus one.

In the New York Democratic mayoral primary, with such a large field of candidates and a high percentage of undecided voters, it could take many rounds before someone reaches a majority.
Using its data, the latest WNBC/Telemundo 47/Politico/Marist poll of the race, for example, found it would take 12 rounds to get a winner.

Where else has this been used?

There are some 20 jurisdictions across the country that use ranked-choice voting, according to FairVote, a nonpartisan vote-reform advocacy group.

Just two states — Maine and Alaska — have switched to it for both statewide and presidential elections, while a few more used it for 2020 presidential primaries.

It had a serious impact on a 2018 Maine congressional race. A Republican had the most first-choice votes and was leading the Democrat narrowly by a couple thousand votes. But two independent candidates also received a fair amount of votes, and when their second-choice votes were redistributed, the Democrat wound up winning by a few thousand.

Popular overseas. It has also been used by Australia, Ireland and Malta since the early 20th century. Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Scotland have all adopted it as well.

Not the first push in the U.S. Two dozen cities adopted ranked-choice voting in this country in the early-to-mid-20th century, but it faced a backlash and was repealed in all of them but one. It is still in use in Cambridge, Mass.

Outside politics. The Oscars have also been using it since 2009 for its Best Picture category, but not everyone is a fanof the results it has produced.

What are the arguments in favor of it?

Proponents of ranked-choice voting say:

  • It means the winner gets a majority of the vote. The usual system of "most votes wins" can mean someone with only a plurality of the overall vote can be elected, not necessarily the person with majority support. And that can make for some broadly unpopular or unqualified candidates winning. In other words, ranked-choice voting can drastically reduce the possibility of spoilers.
  • More moderate candidates. It's less likely that extreme candidates who have a strong base of support but aren't liked more broadly could get through in a crowded primary.
  • More cost-effective than other runoff elections. Ranked-choice voting, sometimes called "instant runoff elections," costs less than other runoffs. If no one hits a needed threshold to win those runoffs, candidates with depleted funds then have to often campaign several more weeks. It also saves local jurisdictions money because they don't have to spend more on another election to administer.
  • Less negative campaigning. The argument goes that candidates need a majority of voters to like them (at least more than the next person).
  • People can feel good about casting their vote. Instead of holding their nose for that one choice they get, voters can express at least a first choice for the person they really like.

What are the arguments against it?

Opponents of ranked-choice voting say:

  • It's complicated. And complications can lead to errors. It's new and voters get confused and make more errors on a ranked-choice ballot than a regular one, one Maine policy analyst found. In fact, the analyst said ranked ballots are three to five times more likely to be uncounted because of mistakes than regular ones.
  • Some argue it's less democratic because it eschews the idea of one person, one vote.
  • Lots of people don't fill out all the choices. In that Marist survey of the New York race, just a quarter of potential voters made five selections. Without all the choices, opponents argue, you're getting bad data. How can you know the true will of a majority of the people if everyone isn't filling out all the choices? Australia requires everyone to rank all of the candidates (in addition to requiring everyone to vote). But without that requirement, if voters don't rank all of the candidates, it's possible to still not get to a majority. That's already happened in the U.S.
  • It could encourage horse-trading. Ranked-choice voting might make for less strategic voting, but it could open the door for candidates to make deals with one another about who their voters should go for as a second choice. Over the weekend in New York, that was on full display. Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate who is running for mayor, and fellow Democratic candidate Kathryn Garcia have formed a late alliance. "You can vote for both of us," Garcia said, as the two stood together. Yang added, "If you support me, please make sure to also support Kathryn Garcia on your ballot."
  • It might not necessarily reduce negative campaigning. As it is already, candidates don't like putting their names on negative campaigning. Much of it is done by outside groups, and nothing in ranked-choice voting stops those entities from continuing to muddy up others in the race. Some argue it could have the unintended consequence of more strident candidates, as fringe extremists appeal to another hard-line candidate's followers for second-choice votes.

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