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Instant Runoff Voting

NYC's Ranked Choice Voting Implementation: voters liked it, ranked it, and want to keep using it

Unite America, in partnership with Common Cause New York and Rank the Vote NYC, unpacks how RCV in New York City was simple, cheap, and popular — and it brought much-needed diversity to the city's elections.

Beth Hladick
August 23, 2021

New York City’s primary election utilized ranked choice voting, the largest implementation of the reform to date. The Board of Elections just released Cast Vote Records (CVRs) — a digital record of how each ballot was cast — allowing researchers to further explore RCV’s impact on candidates and voters.  Initial outcomes and exit polling illustrate why the reform is a victory for voters, thanks in large part to the tireless work of in-state advocates and city reformers. 

As the dust settles on New York City’s primary election and election results are certified, there’s much to reflect on from the largest implementation of ranked choice voting in our country to date. Newly released and updated exit polling indicates broad voter approval of ranked choice voting. Combined with several other promising outcomes, the results were truly historic.  

Exit polling — commissioned by Unite America in partnership with Common Cause — finds voters understood how to use RCV, liked using it, and want to use it again in future elections: 

  • 95% of voters found RCV simple to use;
  • 83% of voters ranked more than one candidate;
  • 77% of voters want to use RCV again. 

This primary election was notable in other ways, too: observers noted campaign tactics focused on unity, rather than division; it was the city’s most participated-in local election in decades; it’s likely Democratic nominee Eric Adams will become the city’s second-ever Black mayor and the city council is poised to become majority-female for the first time ever (26/29 identify as women of color). 

In primary elections, RCV ensures the winner has broad-based support (rather than the support of a potentially unrepresentative faction), but it remains the case that the mayoral election was effectively decided in the primary. Given New York's closed primary structure, only Democratic voters had a say in the outcome, barring over 1 million independent voters from participation and leaving 650,000 Republicans with no say.

It’s also worth noting what didn’t happen; prior to reform, when no candidate received 40% support in the election, another costly, low-turnout runoff election would ensue. The city saved an estimated $20M by not having to conduct a citywide runoff, mitigated against the significant turnout drop-off in primaries (especially amongst people of color), and ultimately prevented unrepresentative outcomes.

New York’s primary also reminds us that sound election administration is a critical element to any successful election. Due to human error, the Board of Elections included test ballots in initial returns, which confused voters and the media with erroneously initial results, which were quickly corrected. The issue had nothing to do with ranked choice voting, and more to do with an Election’s Board that has been scrutinized for previous administrative blunders.  

The work to make RCV a success in this election started long before the traditional campaign season. Since the reform passed in 2019 with 74% support, in-state groups such as Common Cause New York and Rank the Vote NYC have been working around the clock to secure funding for voter education, implement sound regulations, meet technical requirements of reporting software, and educate candidates and media about the new reform, often against unforeseen obstacles (cc: a global pandemic!). 

Other national groups, such as FairVote, Represent Women, Citizen Data, Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, and the Center for Civic Design have supported the effort with research, polling, ballot design, and implementation best-practices

What’s next? Forthcoming research by academics at Harvard, Columbia, CUNY, and the University of Iowa others will utilize the cast vote records to  explore RCV’s impact on voters and candidates, including how it changed the dynamics of campaigns and the reforms’ impact on various communities. 

This critical research complements reform momentum that has only continued to gain steam since the NYC primary: city councils in Broomfield, Colorado, Westbrook, Maine, and Ann Arbor, Michigan  recently referred RCV to the ballot, and a majority of council members cosponsored legislation to implement RCV in Washington, D.C. Further, many thought leaders and editorial boards have already called for RCV’s expansion in Maryland, Philadelphia, and Florida

Though there’s a lot yet to research, what we know today is promising for the future of RCV: voters had more choice and voice in New York City this election cycle. Voters across the states deserve the same. 

 *** The Unite America Fund is proud to partner with Common Cause New York and Rank the Vote NYC, including to commission the exit polling conducted in NYC ***