First Ranked: The Democratic Benefits of RCV

By Grace M

Democracy in New York is…not great. But this election cycle, New Yorkers have the opportunity to improve it a bit. 

Ballot Question 1 (of the the five ballot proposals that will change New York City’s Charter) is about instituting Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) in our local primary and special elections. Using RCV, also known as Instant Runoff Voting, voters can rank up to five candidates in the order of their choice, instead of choosing only one. If no candidate receives a majority after counting every ballot’s first choice, the last place candidate is eliminated, and all their votes are reallocated to the second ranked candidate on those ballots. This process repeats until only two candidates remain, at which point the candidate with the most votes wins. In this manner, RCV performs an “instant runoff” of all the candidates, without requiring a new election to be held. You can read more about how RCV works by reading The Thorn’s In-Depth on the topic or by watching this video.

RCV is an important opportunity for us to better democracy in New York City, and you should vote in favor of Ballot Question 1. While no election system can ever be perfect, RCV is a significant improvement on our current, first-past-the-post system. Ultimately, we should not evaluate an election system based on whether the candidates we like will be more likely to win, but whether that system creates a more functional and representative democracy. RCV will make New York City elections faster and fairer in myriad ways.

Avoiding Runoff Elections

As the term “instant runoff voting” suggests, RCV allows for votes to be redistributed instantly, rather than requiring a secondary election. Under the current system, primary races for Mayor, Public Advocate, and Comptroller require a runoff election if no candidate receives more than 40% of the vote. Not only do these runoffs cost the city money, they result in candidates chosen by a more privileged demographic. In a theoretical state that gives everyone every election day off, and does everything in its power to get voters to the polls, this setup may be okay. However, in real-life New York, where voter turnout is among the worst in the country, a secondary runoff election makes matters worse. Compared to primary elections, fewer people vote in runoff elections, and those voters are older, whiter, and wealthier. So, eliminating runoffs helps ensure that candidates are not chosen by a less representative electorate.

Stronger Democratic Mandate

RCV will also produce candidates with stronger democratic mandates. Currently, in New York City, primaries for citywide positions require only 40% of votes to win. In other primary races, like City Council Member positions, and in special elections for all City positions, any plurality, regardless of how low it may be, results in a win. This system was on display during the 2019 Public Advocate special election in February. Jumaane Williams won the election with just over 30% of the vote – hardly an inspiring mandate. While the Public Advocate does not have significant policy-making power, similar dynamics could play out in a theoretical special election for Mayor (say, if people actually liked Bill de Blasio, and he became president). 

Replacing the current system with RCV will ameliorate this issue. In an RCV election, votes are redistributed according to voters’ preferences until one candidate has majority support. Primary and special elections in New York City presently result in candidates elected by a small minority of voters. While primaries do not directly elect a candidate like special elections, given the dominance of Democrats in the City, Democratic primaries are often determinative (this is not ideal, but it is true). Even if leftist groups can use the current system to elect good policymakers, systems designed to elect politicians to power with small pluralities of the electorate do not uphold a democratic mandate for our policymakers. 

Better Reflect Voter Preferences

Another frequently cited benefit of RCV is that it will allow people to vote their true preferences and eliminate the “spoiler effect.” We’re all familiar with voters who talk endlessly about “electability;” the people who will vote for the candidate with the highest chance of winning, even if they don’t like them (e.g., your lib parents). RCV allows these fretful voters voters to select  their true preference first and rank the “electable” candidate second. If their first choice candidate is eliminated, they can rest easy knowing their vote will go to the “electable” candidate in the next round.

Not only is this better for individual voters, but, hopefully, it will empower voters to buck the machine’s “electability” line, and choose more radical candidates. This may not happen right away, but could be an opportunity for the left to reach more of the electorate. 

Campaigns Engage More Voters 

Because voters can rank multiple candidates, RCV incentivizes campaigns to reach beyond their typical support base. For leftist campaigns, this presents an incentive to spread socialist messages and policy to a wider group, expanding support in the city and making it easier for future leftists to win. Additionally, RCV-advocates have argued that the voting system will encourage candidates to reach out to oft-overlooked parts of the electorate. While research on the topic is nascent, a study in San Francisco found that the poorest and most racially diverse neighborhoods in the city had the highest increase in voter participation when comparing an RCV to a runoff election.

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RCV in primary and special elections will not totally fix New York City’s democratic system, but by eliminating unrepresentative runoff elections, strengthening politicians’ democratic mandates, empowering voters to express their true preferences, and incentivizing campaigns to reach out to larger swaths of the electorate, it’s an improvement. 

It would certainly be better if RCV was being implemented in general elections (or if we all had election day off, or nonpartisan elections were implemented, or if the revolution comes and we can rebuild the system from the ground up). But, despite its reputation as a progressive city, New York is reluctant to make significant changes, and is very cautious in the policy realm. This helps explain why we still have Borough Presidents (or boroughs). Implementing RCV in primaries and special elections is an important step for the City, and lays the groundwork for even more significant democratic reforms in the future. The history of the City’s public campaign financing program demonstrates that this is possible. When the City initiated its matching program in 1988, it was not the first to create such a program, and it offered only a 1:1 match. Today, the program offers a 1:6 match and is widely considered the most innovative and effective system in the country. RCV, if implemented now in primaries and specials, could similarly grow over time to become a more substantial improvement on our democracy. 

RCV will ultimately help leftists because it empowers voters. It complements our work to enfranchise more people and increase turnout, and it paves the way to more holistic democratic reforms in the future. Still, RCV will result in some elections that do not go our way. This doesn’t  mean it’s a bad system. We should not evaluate democratic systems based on if the candidate we think is best will win – the same line of thinking justifies gerrymandering. Rather, we must evaluate a voting system based on whether the electorate is being best represented. RCV will better represents voters. And if we lose an election or two, well, that just means we have more work to do.

About Rebecca Capua 117 Articles
Red Letter spotlights editor, former MWG OC