Ranked Voting: Voting 2.0

What it is, how it works, why it’s good, and why it matters

By Sebastian Guccione

Staff Voting Booth

This past election day on November 5th, New Yorkers voted ‘yes’ to Ballot Question #1, a proposal that will amend the city’s charter to give us a new election voting system called ranked-choice voting (RCV). The proposal passed with 73.54 percent of the vote and will be effective starting in January 2021. It is important to note that the proposal will implement RCV only for the primary and special elections for Mayor, Public Advocate, Comptroller, Borough President, and City Council. While ideally RCV would also be applied to the general elections for the aforementioned offices, since NYC is a largely Democratic city, its elections are frequently decided by the Democratic Primary anyway. However, before I plead my case in support of RCV, let us break down what exactly it is:

In ranked-choice voting as it was passed in NYC, voters will have the option of ranking up to five candidates in order of preference (still having the option to only vote for one or no candidate). Next, first-choice votes are counted and if a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, then that candidate wins the election. If there is no majority winner at this stage, then the candidate in last place (meaning the candidate who receives the least first-choice votes) is eliminated and any voter who had the last place candidate as their first choice will have their vote transferred to their second-choice candidate, if they have one. This process would then repeat until there are two candidates, and whichever candidate receives the most votes wins the election.

This is very different from how primaries for city officials are currently conducted. As of right now, voters select one candidate. The votes are counted and if a candidate receives 40 percent or more of the vote, they win. If no candidate receives 40 percent or more of the vote, then another election is held, called a “run-off primary election,” consisting of the two candidates who had previously received the most votes. Whichever candidate receives the most votes in the second “run-off primary election” wins.

There are several major differences between these two voting systems. In RCV there is one election, whereas in the current system, there can be two if no candidate gets 40 percent of the vote in the first round, an outcome that is frequently realized. Having two elections poses a number of problems, including a costly second runoff election with an extremely low voter turnout. Bella Wang, a Board of Directors Member of the League of Women Voters of the City of New York, has stated that “[h]istorically, Public Advocate runoffs have cost as much as $13 million with as low as 7 percent turnout.” The low voter turnout of runoff elections has also consistently underrepresented lower-income and minority voters.

RCV also incentivizes candidates to not neglect certain groups of voters, while the current system encourages candidates to focus on their base in an attempt to get to 40 percent of the vote. Under RCV, candidates will be fighting to get the second and third-choice vote of even their political opponents within their party. It promotes the cooperation of a party over aggressive and slanderous campaigns. The flip side to this however, a valid criticism of RCV, is that sometimes aggressive campaigns are the strongest and even the only way to fight back against unethical and rich industrial-complexes.

As previously mentioned, RCV is only being implemented for NYC primaries, not general elections. For this reason, I urge people who vote Democrat in the general election to officially register to the party and participate in the primary to ensure that their vote effective.

The fact that New York City, being the most populous city in America, has adopted RCV voting will give a substantial push to efforts dedicated to implementing RCV nationwide. FairVote, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to electoral reform, reports that “[r]anked choice voting has been used for federal elections in Maine and for municipal elections in 13 U.S. cities. It is also slated for use by seven additional cities in their upcoming election cycle – bringing the total number of states using RCV to 10.” What’s more important is that these states, or municipalities in these states, vary ideologically, from California to Texas to Florida to New York. This proves that certain aspects of electoral reform can be bipartisan.

I would like to close this opinion piece by emphasizing that while RCV is a step in the right direction towards a more fair democracy, we still face a disgusting amount of issues when it comes to voting. Low voter participation and registration rates resulting from voter suppression and lack of enthusiasm to gerrymandering and selective disinformation, making it easier for people to vote fairly is an ongoing process that will progress neither smoothly nor effortlessly.

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