- This past June, New York City became the largest city to use ranked choice voting.
- The Board of Elections messed up on messaging and tabulation, but in the end the system worked.
- While the mayor race was a fiasco, ranked choice was huge for contentious city council races.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Ranked-choice voting worked as intended, but its New York City debut didn’t go off without a few hitches.
Ranked-choice voting is a type of ballot that asks voters to list their choices – In New York’s case, five – in their order of preference. When the votes are in, the lowest-ranked candidate has their ballots reallocated to their voters’ second choices, and then so on and so forth until someone breaks 50%. This means a second runoff election is unnecessary – the runoff is done instantly – and that the winner with the broadest support eventually wins.
For the 2021 mayor race, Democrats had a long list of options, but the most popular candidates were Eric Adams, Maya Wiley, Kathryn Garcia, Andrew Yang, Scott Stringer, Ray McGuire, Dianne Morales, and Shaun Donovan.
Some voters may have found themselves doing more homework than they anticipated ahead of filling out their five choices for mayor in the Democratic primary. Still, the elimination system worked exactly as it was supposed to once it became clear no one would finish the first round as an outright winner with at least 50% of the vote.
The real drama and chaos that came with counting the votes was solely the result of an underprepared City Board of Elections, not an inherent feature of the ranked-choice systemGotham voters approved in 2019.
1. Ranked-choice worked, but in the process illustrated how divided New York City’s Democratic voters are
At a rather unprecedented scale in American politics, ranked-choice voting showed how a divided party could choose a candidate if enough voters indicated they could at least live with their second, third, fourth, or fifth choice.
Of the approximately 937,000 votes cast, only 139,459 ballots became “exhausted” by the final round, meaning that only about 15% of voters did not rank either of the final two contenders – former NYPD officer currently serving as Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams and former City Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia.
Ranked-choice voting also had nothing to do with the lackluster showing among further left candidates in the race. Voters were left split after City Comptroller Scott Stringer locked up most of the key progressive endorsements early on, only to have his campaign sink to fifth place.
It was Stringer’s lack of charisma, unoriginal messaging, and a pair of sexual assault allegations – both of which he denies – that sunk his campaign. Stringer’s demise left the progressive wing of the party adrift with minimal options, and it was far too late in the cycle to effectively consolidate around any of them, despite a strong late push from Maya Wiley.
2. Some candidates eventually played strategically, but probably too late in the game. They’ll be better next time
Key to Garcia making it until the final round was a gamble she took late in the campaign by appearing at events with Andrew Yang, who finished in fourth.
Garcia had won a critical endorsement from The New York Times editorial board but was still running in third place through most of the early rounds. Once Yang was out of the race, enough of his voters ranked Garcia second that she was able to vault over Wiley and compete with Adams for the top spot, ultimately falling fewer than 10,000 votes short.
While the Yang campaign did actively strategize around ranked-choice voting to some extent – whether through a big gamble like the Garcia quasi-alliance or by playing pickup basketball with 11th place finisher Paperboy Prince – most of the campaign strategy ended up being more conventional.
Garcia wouldn’t even fully commit to a true alliance with Yang, and no other candidates experimented with joint campaigning beside them.
The next time around, if there’s a full campaign calendar instead of months of Zoom forums, mid-to-lower-tier campaigns may embrace forming alliances and coalitions as a low-risk, high-reward strategy.
3. Ranked-choice didn’t upend the fundamentals of elected politics in New York, but did stave off a costly, laborious runoff
Adams won the primary by executing on his campaign’s simple but effective formula of winning as many labor endorsements as possible and shoring up a base of outer-borough Black voters, particularly homeowners and union members.
His coalition was similar to the one that vaulted outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio over the finish line in 2013, ceding ground in Manhattan and gentrified Brooklyn while running up the score among predominately Black precincts in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.
Ranked-choice voting didn’t change the fact that a relatively small slice of New York’s overall population will have an effective say in their mayor, given Democrats outnumbering Republicans by around seven to one in registrations.
However, Adams avoided what would have been a costly runoff under the old system, saving not only his own campaign’s money, but also matching funds from the city and other outlays to produce another voting day before Election Day in November.
In 2013, de Blasio won the primary and, by extension, the de facto claim to the mayor’s office with just 260,473 votes. Adams only got around 253,000 from the first round of voting. Now, he can securely claim the mantle of his party, having secured over half the vote when all was said and done, not a mere plurality.
4. Ranked-choice really shines down ballot
Besides the top-tier races, the ranked-choice system absolutely bears out looking down ballot.
Take, for instance, the open City Council district in Queens’ 26th District. There are fifteen contenders for the Democratic nomination in the 26th, all of whom have similar, though not identical, politics.
Looking at just the first-round results, in a first-past-the-post system, Julie Won, winner of the primary, would have done so with just 18.5% of the vote, less than a percentage point above her nearest rival, Amit S. Bagga. Just over 3,300 people would have selected the winner of a district representing over 161,000 people.
Thanks to the ranked-choice system, after a dozen rounds of reallocating votes, Won remains the victor, but can now claim the seat with a decisive 56% of the vote, beating Bagga by over 13 percentage points. A complicated, complex field simplified with a single trip to the ballot box.
The rollout of ranked-choice voting may have been a hassle and unnecessarily stressful in the counting process, but everywhere else, it found a winner in precisely the way voters said they wanted it to back when they passed it in 2019.