How ranked-choice voting will work in New York City

Ranked choice voting will be implemented in NYC next election cycle.
Ranked choice voting will be implemented in NYC next election cycle.
Gino Santa Maria/Shutterstock
Ranked choice voting will be implemented in NYC next election cycle.

How ranked-choice voting will work in New York City

What you need to know about the complicated new system.
February 3, 2020

New York City voters are in for a big change come the next election cycle – it’s the first time the city will implement ranked-choice voting for municipal primaries and special elections. 2021 may still be some time away, but candidates are already well into fundraising and one frontrunner has dropped out already. Which means it’s not too soon to start thinking about the new voting method. Here’s what you need to know.

How does ranked-choice voting work?

Ranked-choice, or instant-runoff voting, allows voters to choose multiple candidates and rank them by order of preference. In New York City, primary and special-election voters will have the choice to rank up to five. So let’s say you like Candidate C the best, but you also like Candidate A and to a lesser extent Candidate B. You can rank Candidate C as your first choice, Candidate A as your second and Candidate B as your third. You don’t have to rank all five – in fact, you can just choose one candidate. But the option is there for you to voice your support for mualtiple candidates. For the voter, that’s basically all they have to think about when going to the ballot box – which candidates to choose and how to rank them.

Once the polls close, if a candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, that person wins outright. If no one has a majority of first-choice votes, after the first round, the person with the lowest number of first-choice votes is eliminated. That candidate’s votes are redistributed to the second-choice candidate on the ballots. The process is repeated for each round – the person with the lowest number of votes gets eliminated and their votes get redistributed to other candidates that have been ranked on the ballot – until only two candidates are left. The person with the most votes then is the winner. Except in rare cases, the winner will have a majority. Sometimes, a candidate will achieve a majority before there are only two left, but counting still continues. Although this person has already technically already won, completing the rounds of vote counting ensures that the most number of people will have their votes count in the final round.

Which races will be affected by this change?

Starting in 2021, all citywide, borough president and City Council primaries will use ranked-choice voting, as well as special elections for any of those positions. It won’t be used during the general election or for any state, statewide or federal races. So ranked-choice won’t be used to elect state senators or Assembly members, Congress members, U.S. senators, governors and other statewide officials. It also won’t be used in district attorney races in the city, which are technically not municipal elections. 

As the city Board of Elections prepares for ranked-choice, it won’t be used in any upcoming special elections this year, like the one for Queens borough president in March or to replace former City Councilman Rafael Espinal in April.

This is intended to ensure winners have broader support, but do they sometimes still lack a majority?

That is technically possible and notably happened during the 2014 Minneapolis mayoral election in Minnesota. Even after over 30 rounds of vote counting, the winner, Betsy Hodges, won with just 49% of the vote, thanks to an aspect of ranked-choice voting known as ballot exhaustion. This is when every candidate on a ballot has been eliminated during the course of counting, so it has no effect on the final round when a winner is decided. 

Let’s say 10% of ballots are exhausted by the time of the final vote tally between the top two vote-getters. That means that if 100 originally cast a vote, the final round includes 90 of those ballots. The winner can have a majority of the remaining ballots with just 46 votes, thus winning the election, while still falling short of the 51-vote majority based on the total votes cast. Large number of candidates can lead to more ballot exhaustion. In Minneapolis – 35 candidates ran for mayor and voters could rank only their three favorites. Critics say this is a flaw in ranked-choice. Proponents argue that ranked-choice winners still receive a majority more often than not, and that the average percentage of ballots exhausted is comparable to the percentage of voters who would not show up for a runoff election scheduled after the initial election. It’s also worth noting that, under the previous system in New York City, one could win a special election with a very low share of the vote, if there were many candidates. In primaries, the first-place finisher could win with just 40% of the vote. As City & State previously reported, “according to an analysis done by Common Cause, just 36% of multi-candidate primaries in the city’s last three election cycles were won by a candidate that won a majority of the vote. And since 2009, about two-thirds of multi-candidate primaries for City Council were won with less than 50% of the vote.”

This system sounds complicated, what’s the upside?

Proponents tout a number of different benefits of ranked-choice over plurality elections. Since the point of ranked-choice is to help ensure that the winner receives broader support, a higher proportion of voters, on average, will have at least partially backed the winner. With a plurality, a polarizing candidate who is despised by a majority of the electorate could actually win, an outcome that’s virtually impossible under ranked-choice. Proponents say this helps to legitimize the winner, reduces divisiveness in politics and restores faith in democracy. 

It also saves money by eliminating the need for runoff elections. In New York City, citywide elections where the first-place finisher does not reach a 40% threshold automatically results in a runoff, which can cost a lot of money, be divisive when used to determine primaries and often have a much lower turnout than the original election. Instead, the runoff happens instantly – hence “instant runoff” – with the votes that have already been cast.

Proponents also argue that ranked-choice decreases negative campaigning since candidates are looking to be the second-choices of their opponents’ supporters, and that it encourages candidates to reach out to a wide coalition to build a broad base of support. Some critics say this will lead to fewer candidates taking hard stands on divisive issues, but proponents say that hasn’t happened in cities where the system has been used. 

So what does this mean for New York City?

It’s hard to say right now exactly how ranked-choice voting will turn out because its use in the nation’s largest city is pretty much unprecedented. While several cities and municipalities use the voting system, none even come close to the size of New York City. Even the population of Maine, which is about 1.3 million and has ranked-choice for state and federal races, pales compared the city’s 8 million residents. Certainly, the implementation of ranked-choice in New York will be its biggest test yet and will likely be closely watched by the rest of the country.

Still, existing research suggests that perhaps some things will change, but others things may not. There is data showing a correlation between the use of ranked-choice voting and an increase in winning candidates from marginalized communities, so it’s possible that the system will help the city to elect more diverse officials. However, it’s also true that the person who won a plurality of first-choice votes during the initial round of ballot counting is very often the ultimate winner at the end of the process – meaning that the results aren’t often different from what they would be under the old system, although there may be some shifting in campaign strategy and broader outreach done by candidates.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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