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Reflections on Ranked Choice

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eye on the news

Reflections on Ranked Choice

Now that they’ve experienced the voting system in practice—bumps and all—New Yorkers may want another chance to decide how they feel about it. July 9, 2021
New York
Politics and law

The counting may be over in the New York City Democratic mayoral primary, but it’s not too soon to start thinking about whether to retain the ranked-choice voting system that confused both voters and the city’s Board of Elections. Rather than view ranked-choice as a permanent feature of the city’s electoral system, voters should consider the just-concluded election an experiment—one requiring skeptical evaluation.

Make no mistake: ranked-choice was a radical change. It called on voters to ditch a lifetime expectation that the first-past-the-post candidate would be the winner—and usually on Election Night. Instead, it took two weeks for Eric Adams to be named the winner under the complex new tallying system. On the basis of vote totals by ranked-choice rounds, Adams earned 288,654 first-place votes out of a total of 403,333 (the others being second- through fifth-place votes for him). Kathryn Garcia, the city’s former sanitation commissioner, received about 211,000 second-through-fifth-place votes—more than her 183,433 first-place votes. This was good enough to put her within 1 percentage point of beating Adams.

The new system called on voters not just to pick a favorite but to strategize: What if my candidate is eliminated? The candidates themselves openly encouraged such tactics, notably when Andrew Yang called on his supporters to pick Garcia as their second choice. His move came close to putting Garcia over the top.

Contrary to what ranked-choice advocates sometimes argue, the problem with New York City’s elections is not their failure to reach some elusively determined consensus. Rather, it is historically low voter turnout—such as in the 2013 Democratic primary that gave us Bill de Blasio. While a majority (73 percent) of New York City voters favored ranked-choice voting in the 2019 election, the total turnout in 2019 (692,000) was lower than in the just-concluded primary (938,000). What effect the recent experience with the new system has on this public support remains to be seen.

Another problem: in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, a closed primary effectively determines the mayoral winner. If New York followed the example of Boston, Chicago, and other cities, adopting an open primary election followed by a November runoff between the top two candidates, it would enfranchise more than 1 million Independents and Republicans in a far more meaningful way.

Many insights can be drawn from the finally concluded Democratic primary. We should be grateful that the far Left divided its vote among multiple candidates, ultimately keeping Maya Wiley from Gracie Mansion. We should be concerned that Brad Lander, as comptroller, will invest underfunded city pensions in progressive ventures that don’t provide adequate financial returns. Most of all, though, with one primary now behind them, New Yorkers deserve a chance—should they want it—to reconsider whether ranked-choice is really the electoral system the city needs.

Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

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