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Two new reports on Ranked Choice Voting in NYC provide hope amidst a dismal primary season

A new study about New Yorkers' opinions on ranked choice voting finds that the reform was popular

Beth Hladick
April 27, 2022

The topline: The 2022 primary election season looms large, and promises predictably low midterm turnout and historically uncompetitive general election contests. Two new reports on the impact of ranked choice voting in New York City’s recent primary should remind voters they can have a real say in election outcomes, beginning in the party primary. 

On the cusp of another dangerously noncompetitive congressional primary season, there’s reason to be gravely concerned about the state of elections in our country: nearly 90% of Congress could be decided in a low turnout primary, where candidates often succeed by campaigning against the opposing party, rather than for realistic policy change. 

Uncompetitive general elections — where seats are reliably blue or red — means the determinative election for choosing the district’s representative is the partisan primary. Though incumbents are often uncontested in primaries, when candidates do flood the race, winners often succeed with plurality support through appeal to the narrow partisan base of their electorate.

This not only leads to unrepresentative outcomes, but encourages polarizing behavior both on the campaign trail, and in office.   

But it doesn’t have to be this way, and voters shouldn’t settle for the status quo. Two new reports on New York City’s June 2021 ranked choice voting (RCV) municipal primary demonstrate how alternate election systems are leading the way to more representative outcomes and higher voter satisfaction rates — even when candidates crowd the primary field. 

The first report, “Ranking Works: An Analysis of Ranked Choice Voting in New York City”  authored by Daemen College’s Dr. Erin Carman and Dr. Jay Wendland (published by the Unite America Institute) synthesizes compelling exit polling from the city’s first and world’s largest implementation of ranked choice voting to date. 

In practice, voters had the opportunity to rank up to five candidates for each office in order of preference. If no candidate received 50% of first-choice votes, the candidate who received the lowest number of votes was eliminated, and these votes were redistributed to the voter’s second-choice candidate until a consensus winner emerged.

Professor Carman and Wendland’s analysis contextualizes NYC voter experience and campaign perception alongside succinct summaries of prior peer-reviewed research findings. The exit polling summarized in the report — conducted by Edison Research on behalf of Common Cause New York and Rank the Vote NYC — identifies four clear themes. 

The large majority of voters across race, age, and education level: 

  • Understood the RCV ballot and instructions: 78% of voters across race felt that they understood RCV very or extremely well;
  • Engaged with rankings on their RCV ballot: 78% of voters across races in the mayoral election chose to rank more than one candidate and over 44% chose to rank on all five lines; 
  • Valued the process:  Voters felt rankings gave them an opportunity to choose the candidate that most represented their values while identifying multiple candidates who they could support, and because ranking gave them more of a say in the electoral process;
  • Want to continue using RCV in future elections: 77% of NYC voters expressed wanting to use RCV in future NYC elections, and 62% said RCV should be used in other American elections as well;

The second report, “Ranked Choice Voting in New York City: An In-Depth Analysis” authored by FairVote’s Nora Dell and Deb Otis, analyzed campaign activity, voter turnout, demographic trends, and how voters cast their ballots. Some of their findings include: 

  • Turnout of eligible voters in the primary election was the highest it’s been in more than 30 years (partially attributable to the high level of candidates, and therefore competition, up and down the ballot); 
  • The nominees advanced to the general election were supported by the broadest group of voters: every nominee was the Condorcet winner (or the candidate who wins against all others when matched head to head);  
  • RCV helped elect the most diverse and gender-balanced government in history: Democratic nominee Eric Adams became the city’s second Black mayor; the council is majority women (who hold 31 of 51 seats); and candidates of color won more than two-thirds of city council seats. 

Though both reports paint an optimistic picture for the future of RCV, both recommend opportunities to improve future elections: targeted voter education efforts, continued polling on if voters feel better represented under RCV election rules, and additional research on the impact RCV has on campaigning strategy and rhetoric (to name a few). 

There is still much to learn about RCV’s impact: the more data, case studies, and exit polling, the better. But initial research on the NYC experience suggests voters understood the reform and utilized the opportunity to rank candidates, elected candidates were consensus winners, and representative outcomes ensued. That’s thanks in large part to the tireless work of coalition advocates and volunteers who worked to ensure candidates and voters were educated and equipped for their first RCV election.    

If you’re feeling woeful about the upcoming primary election, remember that it doesn’t have to be this way: voters in municipalities and states both red and blue are opting to utilize election systems that put their needs first, and capture more nuanced voter sentiment when more than two candidates throw their hat in the ring.