A Guide to Ranked-Choice Voting in New York City: How It Works, What It Means, and How to Optimize Your Ballot

A Guide to Ranked-Choice Voting in New York City: How It Works, What It Means, and How to Optimize Your Ballot

Ranked-choice voting. You’ve heard a lot about it. Maybe you’ve read a lot about it, too. Maybe you’ve been explaining how it works to your friends at social gatherings, which are a thing again.

Still, ranked-choice voting, and the degree to which it will impact New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary, is largely a mystery. The race is crowded with flawed candidates, high-profile endorsements have been doled out and rescinded and doled out again, and the polling that’s out there has been all over the place. A PIX11/Emerson College poll released in late May put Kathryn Garcia in front of the pack with 22 percent of the vote. Two weeks later, the same poll had her in fourth place at 12 percent. Eric Adams seems to be the frontrunner as early voting commences on Saturday, but the only reliable takeaway from this uniquely inscrutable race is that no one has any clue to happen come June 22nd. Ranked-choice voting only adds to the uncertainty.

Soon-to-be-former Mayor Bill de Blasio attempted to put the public’s mind at ease on Thursday by spending his morning opining on various pizza toppings, perhaps in an attempt to redeem himself after eating his pie with a fork back in 2014, an egregious faux pas in the world mecca of foldable slices.

De Blasio’s rankings are respectable, but his poster board did little to elucidate the role ranked-choice voting is going to play in the race to elect his successor. We’ve got you.

All right, so how does ranked-choice voting work?

In a ranked-choice election, instead of voters picking only one candidate, they will, as the name implies, rank candidates in order of preference. In New York, you can rank as many as five. If a candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, they’re the winner. Done deal. But if no candidate surpasses the 50-percent threshold, an automatic recount is triggered in which the last-place candidate is eliminated, with all of their votes reallocated to whichever candidates those voters ranked next. The votes are then counted again. Still no one with 50 percent? Do it again. The process continues until one candidate surpasses 50 percent and wins.

When did New York City institute ranked-choice voting?

New Yorkers voted to adopt ranked-choice voting for citywide primary elections in 2019. They did so overwhelmingly; the referendum passing with 73-percent support. This is the first year ranked-choice voting will be used in the city. It will affect primaries for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough presidents, and the City Council.

Prior to the election in 2019, a city charter commission released a detailed report endorsing the implementation of ranked-choice voting. The report outlined several benefits, including how it would force candidates to appeal to a wider swath of the electorate, how it would cut down on negative campaigning, how the city wouldn’t have to spend money on costly runoff elections, how it would prevent a drop-off in turnout from primaries to runoff elections, and how it allows people to vote for who they want to win — rather than who they feel they need to vote for to block the election of an undesirable candidate.

Why is ranked-choice voting right for New York City?

Ranked-choice voting is designed for races with three or more candidates, and New York City has a lot of race with three or more candidates. “It helps you make sense, as a voter, of a crowded field,” says Susan Lerner, executive director of election integrity watchdog Common Cause and chair of Rank the Vote NYC. “Because of the conjunction of term limits and our robust campaign finance system, New York City has a lot of multi-candidate races. In the [2019] special election for public advocate, there were 17 candidates. We didn’t have ranked-choice voting then, so the frontrunner won with 34 percent of the vote.”

The 2020 Democratic mayoral primary is no exception. There are 13 candidates in the field, 8 of which have received substantial media attention and participated in televised debates. None of these candidates have come close to cracking 50 percent in the polls. An PIX11/Emerson College poll conducted in early June had Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams out in front of the field … with only 23 percent of the vote.

In a traditional election, several like-minded candidates can split a large pool of voters into small groups, and then see themselves beaten by a candidate who consolidates a far smaller, but undivided pool of voters. In a ranked-choice election, the winning candidate is more likely to reflect the preference of the larger pool of voters.

The Democratic primary for mayor is not only the most highly publicized testing ground yet for ranked-choice voting, it’s also one that epitomizes why the system was put in place.

Are there drawbacks to ranked-choice voting?

The main drawback to ranked-choice voting is that it’s new and confusing, and could lead people to stay home or just rank the candidate they prefer first and not bothering with the others. This vote would still count, of course, but voters who take the time to fill out all five slots theoretically have more agency in the election them than voters who haven’t had time to educate themselves on the entire field of candidates, and thus may only rank one or two of them. If someone votes for only one candidate and that candidate is eliminated, so is the voice of that voter. Whereas if a voter ranks five candidates, they will have a say deeper into the runoff process. Some worry that certain communities may include a disproportionate numbers voters whose ballots wind up “exhausted.”

Eric Adams supported the ballot measure to implement ranked-choice voting in 2019, but late last year he came out in opposition of the reform. “The more barriers and layers you put in place, you’re going to hurt those who have English as a second language and those who are coming from minority communities,” he told Politico in November.

“Voting can’t be for the astute, the technically astute people,” he said on NY1 the following month. “It must be for everyone, and we’re not ready right now.”

But Lerner, the chair of Rank the Vote NYC, is confident in the city’s efforts to educate people on how the new system works. “There’s a lot of information out there,” she says. “Does that mean there are not some people who when they get to the polling place, will say, ‘Oh, this is new. I didn’t know about this’? Yes, I’m afraid that’s the case. But it won’t be because there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of TV, mail, radio, in-person, signage, bulletin boards, ads on the bus shelters, et cetera.”

She also feels the idea that ranked-choice voting is too confusing is overblown. “Some voters are being told this is complicated and this is confusing,” she adds. “But what we’ve found is that once voters actually have the ballot in front of them, that sense of confusion goes away. The ballot is straightforward and we all naturally rank. What’s unfamiliar is ranking something, which we do naturally every single day, in a different context.”

“People handle the ballots really well,” says Richie, the FairVote CEO. “I think the the education challenge is not about how to fill out the ballot, it’s why to fill out the ballot. That’s what New York City has to do because they care who is going to be mayor and they want to know that they’re ranking in a smart way.”

Are there ways to strategize when filling out your ballot?

The easy approach is to just rank the five candidates you like the most in order of preference. This is generally what advocates advise. It keeps it simple.

“We do tell people, don’t vote for someone you really dislike,” Lerner says.

But what if you dislike the candidates with the best chance to win the election? If it comes down to them, wouldn’t you rather have a say in which one wins?

One thing Eric Adams and Andrew Yang have in common is that, while both are serious contenders to be the next mayor, a lot of people really, really don’t want either of them to be mayor. A lot of these people won’t rank Adams or Yang. But if you prefer one of them to the other, it could make sense to make room for that candidate on the end of your ballot — even if it comes at the expense of ranking a long-shot candidate you might rather see in City Hall. As long as you rank the other candidates with a legitimate chance to win ahead of them, ranking Adams or Yang isn’t going to matter unless it comes down to them. There’s a pretty decent chance it will. If it does, ranking the one you prefer will matter, and every vote mattering is part of the point of ranked-choice voting.

This brings us to the other strategic wrinkle to keep in mind as you head to the polls: It’s a good idea to go ahead and fill all five spots on your ballot. There seem to be a lot of New Yorkers who are only planning on ranking 2-3 candidates because there are only 2-3 candidates they feel comfortable telling people they ranked. It helps the process, however, to fill out the rest of your ballot. The fewer candidates you rank, the more likely your ballot will be “exhausted” before the recount process is completed. You should be doing all you can to ensure this doesn’t happen. Step one is not letting any of your ballot slots go to waste is a great way to start.

The most important thing to remember, though, is to vote your values. The beauty of ranked-choice voting is that it allows voters the freedom to vote for the candidate they want to without feeling their vote may be wasted.

When will we know the results?

It could be a while. The first-place tallies from early voting and in-person voting will be released after the primary on June 22nd, just like a normal election. Absentee and affidavit ballots will come in over the course of the ensuing week, after which the Board of Elections will release a new tally that includes the first-place votes of these ballots. Once these initial first-place results are reported, the ranked-choice elimination process will commence. When a candidate surpasses 50 percent of the vote, a winner will be declared. This might not happen until weeks after Election Day, and possibly not until well into July.

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