The Wrong Way to Do Ranked Choice Voting

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Ranked choice voting continues to spread around the U.S. But not all systems are the same, and New York City is about to put on a tutorial on how not to do it. It’s a cautionary tale for other cities and states.

Ranked voting is intended to allow voters to choose their preferred candidates without worrying about whether they can win. In most cases, the process is straightforward: The ballot lists all candidates and is open to all voters, regardless of their party affiliations. If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the last-place finisher is eliminated and that candidate’s ballots are given to whoever voters ranked second, a process that continues until someone clears 50%.

Ranked voting is used in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and a few other places. In the U.S., almost 20 localities have used it and 32 more (23 of them in Utah) will begin doing so this year or next, according to FairVote, an advocacy organization. The cities tend to be liberal (such as San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Minneapolis, Santa Fe and Telluride), but the first two states to adopt it are purple (Maine) and red (Alaska), where voters narrowly passed it in referenda.

In theory, ranked voting saves people the hassle of needing to vote in two elections. It saves taxpayers the expense of having to fund two elections. And it ensures that all voters have equal access to the round of voting that determines the victors.

New York City, however, has managed to create a system that eliminates all three of these benefits, and it will likely leave the vast majority of voters feeling cheated. Here’s why.

New York will become the first city to use ranked voting for its party primary elections, on June 22. The general election will still take place in November, but it will be a foregone conclusion, because Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 7 to 1, and even independents outnumber Republicans about 2 to 1. If you think New Yorkers are going to elect a mayor from the party of Trump, I have a bridge to sell you. Even the city’s conservative tabloid, the New York Post, has already endorsed a Democrat (Eric Adams) for the job.

So the Democratic primary will be the whole megillah. That’s a big problem for the city’s 1.1 million independents, who are barred from the primary. For all the rightful concern on the left about Georgia and other states moving to make access to the ballot more difficult, Georgia’s primaries are open to independents. New York, on the other hand, effectively disenfranchises one in five voters.

But it’s not just independents who will be left feeling robbed. The new system is a big problem for Democrats, too.

There are eight Democrats running for mayor with at least a modicum of public support, and most polls show none receiving more than 25%of the vote. So here’s a plausible scenario: The candidate who wins the Democratic primary receives only 21% of first-place votes, while losing candidates receive 18%, 20% and 22%. The winner will be able to sit back and coast to victory in November against a patty-cake Republican, while collecting millions of dollars in public funds to spend on a campaign that is already over.

Meanwhile, the eight of 10 Democratic primary voters who preferred someone else — along with many more Democrats who didn’t vote, all the independents and even some Republicans — might reasonably say: “Hey! This makes no sense. If the city is still going to hold a second election, let’s have the two or three or even four strongest candidates duke it out over the summer and fall, and let us rank our choices again then.”

There would be a real benefit to winnowing the field, since it would give voters a chance to see the top candidates square off directly, increasing public (and media) scrutiny of them and their plans. But for that to happen in cities like New York, where one party dominates, election laws must be written so that general elections are based on public support, not party support.

Sadly, the only the way a competitive general election might occur in New York City is if one of the losing Democrats runs as the nominee of a third party, as happened in 1977, when Democrat Mario Cuomo ran on the Liberal Party line against Democrat Ed Koch (the Republican candidate finished third with 4%). But why should any Democrat be forced to hide her or his party affiliation underneath the label of a third party? Doing so both misleads voters and makes it far harder to win their votes, especially because — believe it or not — there will be no ranked voting in the general election.

Why, you may wonder, would the city adopt ranked voting in the primary and not the general election? The reason is as plain as it is cynical: The City Council members and party leaders who helped shape the system recognize that in a general election, ranked voting gives people an incentive to cast their ballots for third parties and independents — God forbid.

It would be hard to come up with a system that did more to disenfranchise voters, short-circuit public debate, restrict voter choice, and suppress turnout more than New York’s does. There are, of course, ways to design ranked voting to prevent all of those problems. Alaska’s new system, for instance, features a primary open to all voters and candidates, with the top four advancing to a general election with ranked choice voting.

As other cities and states consider ranked voting, they should study what New York City has done — and do the opposite.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Frank Barry is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. This column is part of a series, “Looking for Lincoln: A Portrait of America at a Crossroads.” It features reports from Barry’s journey west along the Lincoln Highway, a zigzagging network of local roads running from Times Square to the Golden Gate Bridge, from Sept. 11 to Election Day.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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