August 10, 2021

The Introduction of Ranked Choice Voting in New York City Elections

Frederick P. Schaffer Chair, New York City Campaign Finance Board

In the June 2021 municipal primary elections, New York City implemented for the first time a system of ranked choice voting. Despite various concerns voiced by some political figures and community groups, the use of ranked choice voting appears to have been a success. According to the data so far available, voters understood the system and got the opportunity to express their preferences; a diverse group of candidates competed in and won their primary elections; and there were no material differences in support for the system among ethnic or racial groups.

Ranked choice voting was adopted in New York City as a result of a successful 2019 referendum, following a proposal of the Charter Revision Commission. The proposal was approved overwhelmingly by the voters in an off-year election. The Final Report of the Charter Revision Commission set forth a number of reasons for the proposed change. First, ranked choice voting would save the City money by eliminating runoff elections for city-wide offices in the event that no candidate obtains 40% of the vote as required by state law. Second, the elimination of runoff elections would also boost voter participation by permitting voters in the primary election to determine the outcome without having to vote a second time in the event of a runoff. The data from past runoff elections showed that there was a large drop-off in voter participation between the primary and the runoff and that voters in the runoff election were less diverse in terms of race and ethnicity, and were older and more highly educated than the primary voters. Third, ranked choice voting would achieve a better expression of voters’ real preferences by eliminating vote-splitting (when two like-minded candidates split votes) and strategic voting (when a voter decides to support a candidate other than the voter’s first choice preference in order to prevent a third undesirable candidate from winning). Fourth, because candidates would have to compete for votes other than first-choice votes, they would be more likely to reach out to a broader voting population beyond their base and less likely to engage in negative campaigning against other candidates. Fifth, ranked choice voting is likely to result in the election of more female and minority candidates which in turn would produce a more diverse pool of candidates willing to compete for public office. Finally, ranked choice voting would ensure that the winner obtains the support of a majority of voters. Under the prior system, candidates for city-wide offices could win with 40% of the vote (anything less required a runoff), and candidates for other offices could (and often did) win with less than 40% of the vote, and in some cases, less than 30% of the vote.

Many of the reasons favoring ranked choice voting discussed in the Report were based on studies of other jurisdictions that employed it. Those studies also demonstrated that educational campaigns could be effective in helping voters understand ranked choice voting regardless of level of education, age or race and that there was no difference among racial groups in understanding voting instructions in a ranked choice voting election. In addition, they provided evidence that ranked choice voting increased turnout without adverse effect on minorities.

The Charter amendments approved by New York City voters in 2019 mandated that the the Campaign Finance Board (“CFB”) conduct an educational campaign to familiarize voters with ranked choice voting. Beginning in early 2017, the CFB partnered with numerous community and good government organization and with the Office of the Mayor (which increased funding by $15 million) to undertake a broad-based educational campaign, including webinar training, websites and web videos in multiple languages, voter guides, and ads on TV, radio, and social media, as well as a volunteer peer-to-peer text messaging campaign. These educational efforts appear to have achieved their purpose. Exit polls demonstrated that voters overwhelmingly found the ballot easy to complete and understood ranked choice voting well or extremely well, with little variation among racial and ethnic groups in these respects and that they would like to retain ranked choice voting in future elections. In addition, voters reported that they took advantage of the opportunity to express multiple preferences.

The results of the election show the success of ranked choice voting in achieving its predicted benefits. The city avoided the need for a runoff election for a number of offices, including mayor, which would have resulted in additional expense and a likely reduction in voter turnout. Furthermore, all of the candidates who won did so because they gained a majority of the votes cast; none won with a mere plurality. In addition, the primary resulted in the nomination and almost certain election of a Black mayor and will greatly increase the number of women and minority members of the City Council. In fact, the Council is poised to have a majority of women members for the first time in the City’s history. A record number of candidates ran for office. And the turnout for the primary election was the highest in 30 years. Of course, not all of this was due to ranked choice voting. Because term limits prevented most incumbents from running again, there were a very large number of open seats, and the City’s system of public financing of elections for city office had been made more generous. However, the results clearly disproved predictions that ranked choice voting would depress voter turnout and hurt minority candidates.

A number of minority candidates and voting rights advocates have come out in support of New York City’s system of ranked choice voting. Notably, unsuccessful mayoral candidate Maya Wiley wrote praising the system as benefiting women and minority candidates and urging its continued use, as did two successful Black female candidates for City Council, and the Executive Director of the Center for Law and Social Justice.

Not surprisingly, there continues to be some criticism of ranked choice voting in New York City. Some of it relates to issues that are unrelated to ranked choice voting itself. First, the New York City Board of Elections erred in deciding to release interim results before all of the ballots had been fully counted, candidates eliminated and votes redistributed. The Board of Elections then compounded the confusion by issuing incorrect figures that wrongfully included test ballots. Second, the results of the election were not announced for several weeks largely due to provisions of New York election law that prevent the Board of Elections from counting absentee ballots until seven days after election day and permit voters to cure defects in absentee ballots for seven days after being notified of them.

Other criticism focuses on the claim that ranked choice voting disadvantages minority voters and makes it more difficult to elect minority candidates. As noted above, the results of the primary elections in New York City do not support that view. Some concern was expressed when, in the waning days of the campaign, mayoral candidates Andrew Yang and Katherine Garcia campaigned together, with Yang urging his followers to rank Garcia second. In response, mayoral candidate Eric Adams stated that this coalition “sent the wrong message” and appeared to be “disrespectful to efforts to elect Black and Latino leaders.” However, by avoiding negative campaigning and seeking the support of voters whose first choice was another candidate, Yang and Garcia were acting in ways that the system was designed to encourage. In fact, that may explain Garcia’s success in closing the gap in subsequent rounds of vote counting after first-place votes were announced. Moreover, under the prior system, one of the losing candidates for a city-wide office might, and often did, throw his or her support to one of the two candidates who made it to the runoff. There is nothing about this practice that is unique to a system of ranked choice voting (other than its timing) or necessarily disadvantages minority candidates. Indeed, it is noteworthy that the prior law was itself challenged as a denial of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act; the law was upheld because there was no evidence that the runoff requirement had either a discriminatory purpose or a racially disparate impact on the election of black candidates. The same is true for ranked choice voting.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has suggested that ranked choice voting should be reconsidered if the data from cast ballots show that Black and Hispanic voters ranked fewer candidates than White voters. However, even if it turns out that there is such a differential, it is not possible to know its meaning or significance without data as to the understanding and motive of voters who chose to rank fewer than five candidates. If some voters understood ranked choice voting but nevertheless decided to express their preference for only one candidate, or fewer than five candidate, it is true that they would not have utilized the system to achieve the full power of their vote. However, that is not a reason to reconsider the merits of the system, much less to view it as discriminatory. Moreover, to the extent that a racial differential in the number of candidates ranked may, in the aggregate, diminish minority voting power, the solution would appear to be a stronger campaign of political education rather than the elimination of ranked choice voting.

In the final analysis, it is natural that politicians will tend to favor the system under which they got elected whatever their race, ethnicity or political persuasion; change creates uncertainty and risk. However, as a new generation of politicians come of age, and get elected, under a system of ranked choice voting, it may be anticipated that resistance will dissipate. The results so far in New York City demonstrate the merits of that system, and other jurisdictions are also considering its adoption.