Consensus for Whom?

By Brit B

The status quo of New York City elections is not good. Off-year elections, separate and staggered State and City primaries, and a first-past-the-post voting system have historically served to make New York City elections small-turnout affairs separated from mass politics, where the establishment can wield especially strong influence. Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) would prevent some of the lowest turnout elections and ensure majority support in every primary, but there are reasons to question how much this will actually benefit leftist candidacies, at least in the short term.

One of RCV’s selling points is that it reduces strategic voting: when a voter no longer has to worry they may “waste” their vote or spoil an election, they can vote closer to their actual preference, and in doing so potentially help break the hegemony of a two-party system. This argument is at its strongest in the context of general elections, where a larger electorate is participating, and splitting votes poses a more severe threat with members of a different party in a position to benefit. 

Unfortunately, Ballot Question #1 would only change primary and special elections, and it is less clear how this dynamic will work when only in that context. By design, NYC Democratic primaries skew towards high-participation voters, often with organizational or local ties to candidates such as unions, churches, or Democratic Clubs. Primary results often reflect candidates’ success in brokering turnout from these groups rather than an ideological snapshot of the electorate. Simply adding RCV into the mix won’t change this, but rather, would allow a stronger consensus to form out of this same smaller electorate. 

NYC-DSA-endorsed candidates have largely sought to upend this primary dynamic by increasing turnout and foregrounding popular demands over backdoor political brokerage. This would remain the focus under RCV, with the potential added hurdle that establishment candidates may be able to consolidate votes among themselves while more radical candidates who are less likely to “play nice” remain more isolated. Indeed, reducing nastiness and negative campaigning is one of the celebrated features of RCV in progressive and good governance circles. When you’re fighting opponents aligned with things like real estate interests or mass incarceration, incentivizing polite campaigning can seem beside the point, and could even have a chilling effect on radical language and demands.

This brings the larger question of where exactly consensus is being sought and why. Ballot Question #1 won’t open up general elections to wider contestation — securing the Democratic nomination will still be the key to victory. What does consensus amount to when only applied in primaries, where most of the candidates are rooted in the establishment and radical candidates are more often the exception? As a leftist voter, how many other candidates might you want to rank after your first choice at all? How might this compare to a more liberal or centrist voter?

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