In a few months, New York City residents won’t just vote for their favorite candidate in the June mayoral primary. They will choose their second, third and fourth favorites, as well.
Two years after New Yorkers voted to change the way they cast a ballot in municipal elections, voters in America’s most populous city will participate in the largest test of the ranked-choice system in the nation.
Ranked-choice voting is unfamiliar to most of the city’s nearly 5.6 million registered voters, so local election officials are racing to educate them. The method has been used in state elections in Maine and in 20 counties and towns around the country.
“Sometimes we hear from elected officials, ‘Well, it worked in all these other places. But this is New York City. We’re bigger, we’re more complicated and more diverse,’” said Eric Friedman, assistant executive director for public affairs at the New York City Campaign Finance Board, which is leading the city’s public education campaign.
“We may need to do some extra work to figure out how to make this stick here.”
For decades, ranked-choice voting was largely theoretical, discussed in election policy circles but seldom used. Now it is gaining steam around the country: Lawmakers in 29 states are considering measures this year that would adopt ranked-choice voting in some form, in local, statewide or presidential primary elections. Many of those bills have bipartisan support. Depending on the state and which party is in power, some bills are sponsored by just Republicans or just Democrats.
This momentum follows a year in which Alaska and six cities throughout the country decided to adopt the voting method in upcoming elections, while several other municipalities used ranked-choice voting for the first time. Along with Alaska, Nevada, Hawaii, Kansas and Wyoming also used the method for voting in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.
While proponents laud the voting method for eliminating costly runoff elections and say it helps promote civility in campaigning, some election officials worry the process may turn off voters who view it as too complex. Even so, all agree that a robust public education effort and clear state-set standards are crucial to bolster voter confidence in ranked-choice voting.
In ranked-choice elections, voters rank candidates from most to least preferable. If no candidate receives more than 50% of first-choice votes, an instant runoff starts. The candidate with the least number of first-choice votes is removed, and his or her votes are reallocated to the candidate who was chosen as a second choice on those ballots. The process continues until a candidate reaches the majority threshold. Depending on the sophistication of a state’s tabulation system, the votes can be automatically counted in minutes. In some cities, however, the calculation must be done by hand.
The voting process is especially useful in crowded races where the winning candidate often fails to get more than 50% of the vote. In a time when many people feel politics has become too toxic, the ability to elect a candidate who wins a plurality of first-choice votes, but is at least palatable to a majority of those who cast ballots, is promising, said Deb Otis, a senior research analyst for FairVote, a nonprofit that advocates for ranked-choice voting.
“Our extreme polarization is holding people back on both sides,” she said. “This momentum exists because we’re all seeing the same things: Our democracy is broken and it’s getting worse.”
Some efforts to adopt ranked-choice voting have already succeeded this year.
Last week, Utah legislators voted to expand the state’s ranked-choice voting pilot program, giving cities more opportunities to try it out. And earlier this month, voters in Burlington, Vermont, approved a ballot initiative to amend the capital city’s charter to allow ranked-choice voting in local elections.
“Over the past few years, we’ve just seen more outcomes that are gerrymandered or that are so rooted in the two-party system,” said City Councilor Zoraya Hightower, one of Burlington’s leading proponents of the method and a member of the Vermont Progressive Party. The state legislature and governor must now sign off on the city charter change.
“There is a public awareness of how our voting system isn’t necessarily fair or gets outcomes that the voting public actually wants.”
Spreading the word
By the time of the mayoral primary in June, New York City will have had a couple test runs for ranked-choice voting. Last month, there were two City Council special elections in the borough of Queens. This month, the Bronx has two more.
While turnout is expected to be lower than that in the high-profile mayoral election, Friedman and other election officials are eying the results to see whether the public understands the process. He is waiting for the city’s Board of Elections to release data on the special elections to determine how many voters ranked two or more candidates—a key sign of comprehension.
The city has released voter education materials in five languages, and will soon add 10 additional languages to its resources. The key to reaching a multitude of voters in a diverse metropolis, Friedman said, has been his office’s partnerships with community organizations—especially ones that represent communities of color.
So far, his office has helped train nearly 500 people from community organizations and more than 2,600 voters to help spread the message throughout the city’s five boroughs and hundreds of neighborhoods. The city will mail postcards and voting guides, launch an advertising campaign and blitz local media.
This will be especially important for the city’s Latinos, who are 30% of the population, said Juan Rosa, Northeast director of civic engagement for the NALEO Educational Fund, a nonpartisan group that seeks to boost Latino participation in the democratic process. NALEO will work with more than 100 community organizations in the city to offer presentations and trainings on ranked-choice voting between now and June.
Rosa said the group will build off the network it created for the 2020 census, when it learned that Latino voters trust educators, health care workers and Spanish-language media as communicators of complex information. But in-person outreach continues to be a challenge in the pandemic.
“It’s an uphill battle,” he said. “Our community builds trust by being able to see you, hear you, ask you questions. That becomes less possible when you’re communicating over a Zoom call.”
Some election experts worry that voters will be dissuaded by the perception that ranked-choice voting is complex. Jason McDaniel, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University, found in several studies that there is a statistically significant drop in voter participation in the first two mayoral elections after adopting ranked-choice voting. He is preparing to release new findings in the coming months that, he argues, corroborate his previous studies.
While the dip in participation eventually recovers in the third ranked-choice election, his research shows, McDaniel worries some local election officials may underestimate voters’ doubts.
“If it sticks around long enough, people will get used to it,” he said. “It’s not the worst thing in the world. But I have some skepticism for it.”
Otis of FairVote disagrees. She found McDaniel’s analysis “cherry-picked,” looking only at mayoral elections, which she pointed out make up a small percentage of ranked-choice elections in the country.
Still, the concern around voter confidence has been a sticking point for some wary election officials.
Utah in 2018 launched a pilot program allowing cities to test ranked-choice voting in their local elections. But 28 of the state’s 29 county clerks did not feel comfortable offering this option. Ricky Hatch, the clerk in Weber County and board chair of the Utah Association of Counties, a nonprofit that supports county governments, said one of the biggest concerns for clerks was how to explain the system to a voter or losing candidate in a detailed enough manner to inspire confidence in the security, transparency and auditability of elections.
“Ranked-choice voting is very good on paper,” Hatch said. “It’s a good theory that gives voters more options. But there’s a real challenge when it comes to real practice. Anytime anybody asks me to describe ranked-choice voting, they usually ask me two additional times to explain myself.”
Seeing this roadblock, state Rep. Jeff Stenquist, a Republican, successfully shepherded legislation through the Utah legislature this month that would expand the pilot program to allow cities to contract with other counties in the state who would be willing to facilitate a ranked-choice election. Only two cities in Utah County have participated in the pilot program thus far.
Stenquist isn’t sold on ranked-choice voting. But he wants to gather more data to test whether the method could succeed in the Beehive State. More cities, he said, need the opportunity to participate in the pilot.
“I’m trying to take an unbiased, objective approach to this,” he told Stateline. “If those benefits prove out, it’s something we can expand.”
Finding the right fit
In Vermont, Burlington City Councilor Hightower first heard about ranked-choice voting five years ago, while listening to an episode of the Freakonomics podcast. She has been amazed to see the method steadily spread across the country.
“Even though it’s getting more into the consciousness of the average voter, it’s not quite fringe anymore,” she said. “But it’s not quite mainstream.”
There is no national standard for ranked-choice voting. States have tried and tested different versions at the statewide and city levels to best fit their voting systems.
In Colorado, which has allowed cities to offer ranked-choice voting, state Rep. Jeni James Arndt, a Democrat, co-sponsored legislation this year that would set state standards for ranked-choice voting and allow cities to run their ranked-choice elections through their counties, instead of independently.
“It’s a pretty mild bill, but it elevates the issue,” she told Stateline. “If a city did opt in, it would make it easier to do it. This is a proof-of-concept type of bill. And then it doesn’t seem so scary.”
The bill passed out of a House committee without any Republican support. But it is still expected to pass the legislature. Assistant Minority Leader Tim Geitner, a Republican who opposes the bill, said Colorado towns have run ranked-choice elections without state assistance in the past.
That is true, said Tiffany Kavanaugh, town clerk of Telluride, one of two municipalities in Colorado that have run ranked-choice elections. But, she said, she would have benefited from state guidance and tabulating help from her county.
Because the town had a ranked-choice election that the rest of the county and state lacked, Telluride voters received two ballots in one envelope. Once completed and returned to election officials, one ballot went to the county to tabulate and the other went to the city to tabulate by hand.
But Telluride has only 2,400 registered voters. Kavanaugh can’t imagine how difficult that would be in a larger city without the help of the county or state.
“It was not intuitive for me at the beginning,” she said. “It took many training sessions before we hand-counted. It was almost like we were training for a marathon.”
She remains neutral on ranked-choice voting. While she is not sure voters ever fully grasped how it worked, the system was effective in 2015, when the top two mayoral candidates tied. In previous years, this would have been settled through a card draw.
The citizen initiative that brought ranked-choice voting to Telluride expired in 2019 after three elections.
The efforts to bring ranked-choice voting to other states have been more bipartisan.
In Wisconsin, a group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill this year that would eliminate partisan primaries for federal offices in favor of a primary ballot with all candidates, regardless of party. Voters would first choose their favorite candidate. Then, in a system known as final-five voting, the top five candidates would advance to the general election. In the general election, voters would then rank those top five candidates, triggering the ranked-choice mechanism during the vote count.
The hope behind the proposal is that it will help ease political tensions and inspire more common-sense governing in Congress, said Sara Eskrich, executive director of Democracy Found, a bipartisan nonprofit that advocates for the alternative voting method.
“It allows elected officials to be responsible to their constituents,” Eskrich said, “not always looking over their shoulder for a primary challenge.”
State Rep. Daniel Riemer, a Democrat and one of the Wisconsin bill’s sponsors, told Stateline that his colleagues in both parties know all too well how a small percentage of primary voters can stand in the way of getting things done. While he is encouraged to see bipartisan agreement, he also knows that this is a big change that ultimately would scrap the way they originally got elected.
“Any way that gets us to think about changing the game of how we know how to win,” he said, “is a challenge.”
This story was first published March 12, 2021, by Stateline, a publication of the Pew Charitable Trust.