New York City’s Mayoral primary election this month will be done via ranked choice voting, a system in which voters can rank the candidates in order of preference, rather than just picking one. New Yorkers voted in favor of the system by an overwhelming majority of 73% during the election in November 2019. While it may seem a little confusing at first, ranked choice voting is a simple system that has the potential to make elections fairer. Here’s how it works and why it matters:
How Does Ranked Choice Voting Work?
For the New York City mayoral election, primaries are closed so voters have to register with the party whose primary election they want to vote in. Under the new ranked choice system, voters can rank up to five candidates, meaning Republican voters will be able to rank all three Republican party candidates while Democratic voters will be choosing their top five picks from the field of 16 Democratic candidates.
With the ranked choice system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. When ballots are being counted, if your top choice doesn’t get enough votes to win, your vote is given to your second choice. If your second choice also doesn’t have enough votes to win, your vote is given to your third choice, and so on down the list.
Rather than use this vast field of New York City mayoral candidates as an example, let’s just use a hypothetical election with four candidates for the sake of simplicity. Here’s how your order of preference might look on your ballot:
- 1st choice: Candidate 3
- 2nd choice: Candidate 1
- 3rd choice: Candidate 2
- 4th choice: Candidate 4
After all ballots are in, officials will count first choice votes first. Let’s say that the first-choice tally yields the following results:
- Candidate 1: 34%
- Candidate 2: 17%
- Candidate 3: 12%
- Candidate 4: 37%
No candidate won 50% of the vote so no winner is declared. Instead, the candidate with the lowest percentage is eliminated. In this case, candidate 3. Those who ranked candidate 3 as their first choice (as you did in your hypothetical ranking above) will have their votes given to their second choice. Then, the new totals might look this:
- Candidate 1: 40%
- Candidate 2: 19%
- Candidate 4: 41%
Your second-choice candidate is closing the gap but not yet above 50% so no winner will be declared. Instead, candidate 2, who now has the lowest percentage will be eliminated and those who voted for that candidate will have their vote given to the next candidate down on their list. Since Candidate 1 was your second choice and they weren’t eliminated in this round, your vote stays with them. In the third round of counting, the results look like this:
- Candidate 1: 52%
- Candidate 4: 48%
Candidate 1, having exceeded 50% of the vote is declared a winner. While your top choice didn’t make the cut, you at least were able to help push your second choice across the finish line.
Why Does Ranked Choice Voting Matter?
In the winner-take-all system we currently use for most elections, you only choose your top candidate. The winner is whoever gets the largest portion of votes (a plurality), even if it’s nowhere near 50%. In the example above, candidate 4 (your lowest ranked choice) would have won the election with the 37% they got in the first round of counting. With the ranked choice system, however, a candidate has to win a majority, even if part of that majority only views the candidate as their second or third choice.
In terms of creating fairer elections, this is not enough to completely fix the issues with America’s voting system but it’s a big step in the right direction. Here are some of the ways ranked choice voting improves elections:
No More “Lesser of Two Evils” Voting
The major benefit to voters is the freedom from that pressure to vote for the candidate most likely to win, rather than the candidate most aligned with your political views. Your vote won’t be “wasted” when you vote your conscious. As you saw in the example above, you can still influence the outcome of the election, even if your first choice doesn’t win.
In the New York primary, for example, you can put that “lesser of two evils” candidate in your fifth place slot. Then, fill the first four slots with those “no chance in hell” candidates that actually have the policy ideas you support. Your safety choice is there in fifth place, just in case, but now you’re actually able to put your support behind the candidate you really believe in.
Promotes Majority Support
A fundamental concept of democracy is that decisions should be made and elected officials should be chosen by majority support. However, in a winner-take-all system like ours, candidates can be declared winners, even without winning a majority of the vote.
When this happens, that means the candidate won despite the fact that the majority of voters did not vote for them. In the example earlier, Candidate 4 had the plurality with 37% of the vote. In a winner-take-all system, they would have won despite the fact that 63% of voters did not for them.
In especially tight races, candidates have won elections with as little as 22% of the vote, meaning they won in spite of the fact that 78% of voters did not choose them.
While it’s possible that the candidate with the plurality would ultimately win the majority in a ranked choice system, it’s far from guaranteed. According to FairVote, out of 232 ranked choice elections held in the United States, 124 races went into additional rounds before a winner was declared and at least 15 races ended with a candidate who was not in the lead in the first round winning the majority in the second or third round.
Increased Voter Turnout
While ranked choice is still not widespread enough to get definitive numbers on this point, preliminary results show that when cities implement ranked choice voting, voter turnout usually increases. This may be because it makes voting more meaningful. Not only are voters more empowered to choose the candidate they truly believe in, but they have a greater sense that their vote will count, one way or another.
A Decrease In Negative Campaigns
In winner-take-all elections, a powerful campaign strategy is to attack other candidates and rally up enough hatred for your opponents that a plurality of voters picks you as the “lesser of two evils.”
This provides little value to voters. Amid the barrage of smear campaigns and mudslinging, voters hear very little about what any of the given candidates actually plan to do once in office.
With ranked choice voting, attack campaigns are much less effective and jurisdictions where it’s been implemented typically report more positive, civil campaigning. This makes sense since candidates with similar platforms will likely have a similar voter base. Slandering a candidate whose voter base might very well give you their second-choice vote will do more to alienate that base than it will to convince them to put you first.
More Choices for Voters
In a winner-take-all system, political parties try to limit the number of candidates to avoid “vote splitting,” when a candidate wins with a very small plurality. To prevent this, many candidates are pressured to stay out of the race, both by party officials and by voters who worry that smaller candidates will “steal” votes from likely winners and weaken a party’s overall chance of winning.
In ranked choice voting, vote splitting is no longer a concern. Whether two candidates run or 50 candidates run, no one wins until they have a majority of the vote. This means there won’t be as much pressure to keep “less electable” candidates out of the race.
Where the system has been implemented, women and POC candidates are more likely to run and more likely to win. As many as 48% of public offices that are decided by ranked choice are held by women. Analysis also showed that in jurisdictions where ranked choice was implemented, candidates of color won twice as many elections as they did before the system was implemented.
With a broader and more diverse range of candidates free to enter the race, voters have more choices and, above all, more representative choices.
A Crisis of Voting Rights Is Sweeping the Country
Ranked choice voting has already been in use at the state and/or local level in at least six states for decades, mostly at the municipality level or in primary elections. Since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election in the United States, it spread to 12 more states, including five that implemented it for presidential primaries.
The momentum is picking up pace rapidly as more and more cities and states implement ranked choice. However, it is still not in pace with the recent wave of legislation that seeks to restrict voting rights further. At least 14 states have enacted laws this year to make voting more difficult and there is pending legislation in as many as 48 states.
These counter pulls—toward fairer elections on the one hand and voter suppression on the other—reflect something much deeper than the simple ideological polarization of American voters.
At stake is the very ability of American voters, wherever they find themselves on the political spectrum, to make their voices heard in our democracy and to choose candidates who truly represent their interests.
Admittedly, ranked choice voting won’t fix all of these restrictions, as much of the legislation is built around denying access to elections altogether. They largely restrict or eliminate mail-in ballots, early voting, voter registration campaigns, and other fundamental means of ensuring voters will be able to cast a ballot at all.
However, for those who will still be able to cast their ballots, ranked choice voting will give every single voter greater influence over which candidate gets their vote and ensure that every candidate who wins has majority support (even if they’re not every voter’s first choice).