If New Yorkers know one thing, it’s how to choose among a wide array of options: subway routes, pizza parlors, clothing boutiques, Broadway shows. The nice thing about having these choices is that you can rank-order them; if your first isn’t available, you’d probably be O.K. with your second or even your third. But when it comes to electing politicians, New Yorkers are in the same bind as most of the rest of the country — voters can choose only one, no matter how much they like him or her, or how many other candidates are on the ballot.
The good news is that there’s a solution, in the form of Ballot Question 1 in this year’s New York City elections, for which early voting begins Oct. 26. (Election Day is Nov. 5.) That solution is called ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting.
The initiative, part of a package of electoral reforms on the ballot, would give New Yorkers the ability to rank up to five candidates in all primaries and special elections for mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough president and members of the City Council, starting in 2021. If they didn’t like any of the candidates offered, they could, as always, write one in.
While ranked-choice voting has already been adopted in cities and states from coast to coast, New York City would be by far the largest jurisdiction in the country to get on board.
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Here’s how it works: Rather than being forced to choose a single candidate on your ballot, you rank some or all of the candidates, from most preferred to least. If one candidate has an outright majority of first-place votes, he or she wins. If not, the candidate with the fewest number of first-place votes — call her Candidate C — is eliminated. The ballots that listed Candidate C first are then transferred to whichever candidate those voters listed second. The process repeats, with the last-place candidate being eliminated and his or her ballots transferred to the next highest-ranking candidate on those ballots, until one candidate has a majority of support.
It may sound confusing, but nearly everywhere ranked-choice voting has been used, from the San Francisco Bay Area to Minneapolis to Santa Fe, N.M., voters get it, and they like it. In Maine, voters tried it out in congressional elections in 2018, and it was popular enough that they decided to use it for next year’s presidential election.
When voters are able to express their preferences more fully, they feel more connected to the political process, so it’s no surprise that turnout tends to go up where ranked-choice voting is used. More voter participation is badly needed in New York City, where the proportion of voters who turn out struggles to crack double digits in off-year elections. Pair that with a welcome increase in the number of candidates — the result of smart new public-financing laws — and it sometimes seems as though there are more candidates on the ballot than voters at the polls. This year’s special election for public advocate featured 17 candidates.
In multicandidate races like this, the winning candidate often has less than majority support. The mayoral race is required to hold a runoff if no candidate breaks 40 percent of the vote, but no similar cutoff exists for City Council races. This can create a “spoiler effect,” where an unpopular candidate can win with, say, 25 percent of the vote, solely because his or her opponents split the rest.
Ranked-choice voting solves this problem. At the same time, it forces candidates to run more positive campaigns, because they can’t afford to go negative against opponents whose supporters might be inclined to list them second or third. It also results in the election of more female and minority candidates, who often suffer from the perception that they aren’t “electable” in a traditional first-past-the-post race.
Last but not least, ranked-choice voting saves time and money by avoiding costly, low-turnout runoff elections, which tend to be dominated by a small and unrepresentative slice of the electorate — voters who are older, whiter and wealthier than average.
It’s a perfect time for ranked-choice voting in New York City. Some 70 percent of City Council members are term-limited in 2021, as are Mayor Bill de Blasio and Comptroller Scott Stringer and all five borough presidents. All told, more than 500 candidates are expected to run for office, according to the city’s campaign finance board.
New Yorkers like to think of their city as a place of bold, progressive innovation, but when it comes to the democratic process, New York is too often stuck in the dark ages. Ranked-choice voting is a smart, tested reform that would make certain that New Yorkers elect candidates who have the support of a majority of voters. Isn’t that how democracy is supposed to work?