Voters will decide in November on a ballot question that would switch the city to a system of ranked choice voting for primaries and special elections — in time for the 2021 elections for mayor and other city offices.
Under the proposal — one of several initiatives put forward by the city Charter Revision Commission — voters would rank as many as five candidates in their order of preference, instead of casting a ballot for a single candidate.
“It empowers voters,” said Susan Lerner, head of the good government group Common Cause. “We want more voter choice.”
The idea has attracted support from across the political spectrum, from pro-business groups to progressive activists who agree it would be good for democracy, even if they disagree about which way it will sway elections.
The system, also known as instant runoff voting, requires a candidate to get a majority in order to win. If no one does, the worst-performing candidate is eliminated, and their votes are redistributed to the voter’s second choice. The process continues until someone gets more than 50 percent of the vote.
“It creates the opportunity for bringing the political conversation more to the center,” said Kathy Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, which represents business leaders.
Candidates would be compelled to appeal to a broader swath of the electorate in order to get second choice votes, instead of being able to win with a narrow base, she said. “Hopefully that will create a healthier conversation in the political realm than we’ve had when everybody’s shouting at each other from the extremes.”
But for groups on the left, the change could help insurgent candidates, since voters will be able to choose their favorite candidate without worrying about wasting a vote on someone who can’t win.
“People are much more able to vote their minds than just to vote for the establishment candidate,” said Jonathan Westin of New York Communities for Change. “In the long run, I think it will be good for democracy and good for progressives, because, especially for newcomers and people running for the first time, it really gives people an ability to give them a shot.”
“We see where politics is going, and it’s not moving towards the center,” he added.
The new coalition, dubbed Rank the Vote NYC, will hold a kickoff event Thursday at Federal Hall and plans to hold parties to get New Yorkers on board with the idea — inviting them to rank their favorite beers and favorite cookies as they would candidates. And they’ll be canvassing at subway stops and street fairs.
Supporters of the switch have also created a committee with the state Board of Elections that will push the initiative.
No organized opposition has so far emerged to the proposal, though there may be concerns that voters will have difficulty learning the new system and having enough information to rank multiple candidates.
Common Cause has found that among city primary races with three or more candidates, two thirds are decided without a majority vote.
“You don’t have to vote for the lesser of two evils. You don’t have to be concerned about splitting the vote,” Lerner said.
If the system is implemented, the city will no longer hold physical runoff elections, which often cost millions and have low turnout.
Other cities, including San Francisco and Minneapolis, already use ranked choice voting. Where it’s been tried, it’s been shown to reduce negative campaigning because candidates don’t want to alienate their rivals’ voters, Lerner said.
“It discourages negativity,” she said. “The system rewards candidates who make it their business to talk to the most voters. That is not the system now. The system now rewards the candidates who dive deepest and mobilize their own base.”