New York City

How ranked-choice voting would change New York City campaigns

Tuesday’s partisan primaries could be the last in which In New York City voters will only have one choice for a given office. The New York City Charter Revision Commission included ranked-choice voting among its proposals. Here’s how that could transform campaigning.


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In New York City, Tuesday’s partisan primaries could be the last in which voters will only have one choice for a given office. The New York City Charter Revision Commission has all but finalized the proposals that will go to voters in November, and the inclusion of ranked-choice voting represents perhaps the biggest potential change. The new system could stand to transform how candidates hit the campaign trail, from relying less on negative ads to reaching out to a wider variety of voters. 

Under the proposal put forward by the commission, New Yorkers will get to vote on whether to institute ranked-choice voting – also known as or instant-runoff voting – for all municipal primaries and special elections beginning in 2021. Because of the state’s use of fusion voting, the commission opted not to implement the system for general elections to avoid confusion around candidates who appear on the ballot lines of multiple parties. 

For the voter, the new system would mean they should no longer go to the polls on primary day with just one preferred candidate for each office on the ballot. Instead, they would rank up to five candidates in order of preference. The purpose is that if no one gets the majority of first-place votes, second-choice votes get redistributed. The person who finishes last in the first round of counting gets eliminated, and the second choices on those ballots get added to the total of the chosen candidates. This continues until someone has the majority. 

A decrease in negative campaigning may be the most notable change to that has been seen in other cities that may should the city adopted ranked choice. Jerry Goldfeder, an election lawyer who has testified in favor of ranked-choice voting in the past, said that the system would make elections more “collegial” in order to gain the most amount of support. Doug Forand, a senior partner at the political consultancy firm Red Horse Strategies, agreed. “Campaigns will be less inclined to go negative because they can't afford to turn off their opponent's supporters when they'll need those voters to turn around and vote for their candidate as a second choice,” Forand told City & State.

The campaign of Queens district attorney Melinda Katz has turned markedly negative against fellow candidate Tiffany Cabán in the closing days of the campaign. An independent expenditure committee unassociated with Caban also recently released an ad that attacked Katz. Both are considered frontrunners in the race. If Forand and Goldfeder are correct, such strategies may not have been employed in a ranked-choice system.

In cities with instant-runoff voting, such as San Francisco, Minneapolis and Santa Fe, candidates will sometimes actively campaign with fellow candidates – and even endorse each other as second choices – in order to gain secondary support from the other candidate’s backers. One survey – commissioned by ranked-choice supporters – found that voters felt more satisfied with candidates’ campaigns in cities with ranked-choice voting as opposed to without it.

Ranked-choice voting could also help save money by precluding the need for runoff elections. Right now, if a candidate for citywide office doesn’t win 40% outright, the top two compete in a follow-up election, generally after crowded primaries. These runoffs can be both costly and divisive, pitting two candidates from the same party against each other in such a way that it may alienate voters. The 2001 mayoral Democratic primary was one such contentious election. The runoff between Mark Green and Fernando Ferrer relied heavily on negative campaigning. Green squeezed out a victory, but at the cost of a majority of his campaign cash and dividing the party. When it came to the general election, Republican Michael Bloomberg achieved a narrow victory.

But there are those who have concerns that instant-runoff voting will change campaigns for the worse. During debate among the Charter Revision Commission members on the proposals, one commissioner questioned whether the system would simply lead to candidates without strong ideological stances in order to be an appealing second choice for the most possible voters. 

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said that such fears are unfounded, based on the evidence available from other cities that have implemented ranked choice. “What we've seen is that candidates are freer to really talk about what is unique about them from a positive point of view and to communicate to the voter what they believe in,” Lerner said. 

Lerner said the reason for this is because people focus more on what makes them unique and will gain them the most first-choice rankings, while forming coalitions with ideologically similar candidates in order to gain second-choice support on shared issues or issues less central to his or her campaign. “It really does change the way in which candidates campaign,” Lerner said. “It provides a very compelling incentive for candidates to campaign in every community, to every group within their district or within the city.” Such was the case in San Francisco in 2018, where two progressive candidates – Jane Kim and Mark Leno – campaigned together against the more moderate London Breed in a special election. Rather than try to shift their positions more to the middle to gain moderate voters, Leno was able to broaden his support among Kim voters, while maintaining his progressive message. Ultimately, however, Breed won by a narrow majority after several rounds of ballot counting.

After Leno and Kim announced their coalition, the San Francisco Chronicle published an editorial accusing the pair of trying to “game the system.” Of course, constituencies form coalitions in plurality winner-take-all elections, too, like in the special election in New York City’s 45th council district. In that race, City Councilwoman Farah Louis was propelled to victory thanks to a coalition of Hatitian-Americans and Orthodox Jews in the district. Instant-runoff could make such politicking occur more often. Yes, they may be reaching outside their base for more votes, a key aspect proponents of the system say it encourages, but perhaps only to the point of finding the right combination of voters that will lead to your victory.

Still, proponents like Lerner said a ranked-choice system helps to ensure that the winner of an election has the most support among the broadest number of people. In recent mayoral elections in Minneapolis and Santa Fe, multiple rounds of vote redistribution found that the candidate who originally finished with the most first-preference votes still ultimately won, suggesting that perhaps the voting system did not do much to change the actual results. But both candidates – Santa Fe Mayor Alan Weber and former Minneapolis Mayor Besty Hodges – said that the ranked-choice system made them reach out to voters beyond their base. They also said that winning 66% and 49% of the vote (33 rounds of counting ballots still did not provide Hodges an outright majority in 2014), helped legitimize their victory by showing they had support, even if it was secondary or tertiary, from the largest percentage of the electorate.

This may have a similar effect in New York City. 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.

In terms of special elections, the recent special election for public advocate is a prime example of the kind of race ranked choice voting was designed to improve, even though it likely would have produced the same exact result. A total of 17 candidates ran, and the winner, then-New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams, pulled off a win with just 33% of the total vote. It’s impossible to know for sure how a ranked-choice system may have changed the results of that election, although it’s very possible that other liberal Democratic contenders’ supporters’ second choice would often have been Williams. But even if Williams had still won, he would have had greater incentive to appeal outside of his base of African-Americans and other progressive voters in Brooklyn and Manhattan, by campaigning in the Bronx, for example, or reaching out more to groups such as Asian-Americans.

Of course, the proposal must first get final approval from the commission in July before making it onto the ballot, and then voters must vote for the change to happen. Even after that, Lerner said that a robust public education campaign must accompany the new system to ensure that voters are well-informed before heading to the polls for the many important elections – including for the open seat for mayor – they will decide in 2021. “I can assure you that Common Cause ... will be out educating voters, and exciting them with the possibilities of this new, and we believe improved, way of voting,” Lerner said.