Ranked Choice Voting Puts NYC Voters First
The topline: New York City’s primary is Tuesday, June 22, and early and absentee voting is already underway. Voters will have the opportunity to rank candidates by preference through ranked choice voting for the first time. Results may be delayed due to a state-mandated ballot curing period.
With 73.5% support from voters, ranked choice voting (also referred to as RCV or instant runoff voting) passed in New York City as a ballot initiative in 2019. The reform allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, will ensure majority winners, and eliminates the need for costly and often low turnout runoff elections (which can cost the city as much as $20 million, according to the local independent budget office).
The Democratic and Republican primary elections on Tuesday are the first city-wide use of the reform. The implementation will more than triple the number of Americans living in a jurisdiction that utilizes RCV, as NYC joins the more than 50 cities that have adopted the reform, in addition to the states of Maine and Alaska.
Under the city’s updated charter, RCV will be used in the primaries and special elections for city races. This year, it will help decide a number of open seats, including for mayor, public advocate, comptroller, as well as for borough president positions and city council races (the Manhattan District Attorney race is the only office on Tuesday’s ballot that will not be decided via RCV).
Voters will have the ability to rank candidates by preference, from their first to fifth choice, if they so choose. If no candidate reaches a majority (50%) in the first round, the last-place candidate will be eliminated, and any first-place votes cast for that candidate will be transferred to the voters’ second choice. This instant runoff process continues until a candidate receives a majority of the vote.
Previously, if no candidate in the primary won more than 40% of the vote, a runoff election would be triggered with the top-two candidates, requiring voters to come back to the polls. In a competitive mayoral primary election like we’re seeing this year (13 candidates are declared in the mayoral on the Democratic side!) a traditional first-past-the-post election would almost certainly have resulted in vote splitting and a plurality winner in the first round. Historically, voter turnout in runoffs has dropped, to as low as 6.9% in 2013, often yielding unrepresentative outcomes for voters.
For voters in Queens and the Bronx, ranked choice voting will be familiar; a special election earlier this year gave them the opportunity to use RCV for the first time. In exit polls, voters expressed their satisfaction with ranked choice voting as a popular and simple solution. According to surveys, 95% of voters said that the RCV ballots were simple to fill out, and 70% of people took advantage of the ability to rank candidates.
"In a ranked-choice voting system, voters do not have to settle for the lesser of two evils. You don't have to worry that the polls tell you this person has no chance."
— Susan Learner, Executive Director of Common Cause New York (source)
New York City has prioritized educating voters on the reform through an April budget allocation of $15 million. This funding has allowed for additional advertising, accessibility and language access resources, and direct outreach between stakeholders and community groups.
Despite the instant runoff, New Yorkers will not have immediate election results; there will be at least an additional two weeks before results are official. Absentee ballots have until June 29th to arrive and be counted, and a second week will allow voters to fix minor errors if necessary. This is due to recent legislation passed by the New York General Assembly that allows for a cure process until July 9th, ensuring that every vote and every voter counts.
However, on election night, the board of elections plans to release the unofficial results from the in-person, first place votes that were cast on or prior to June 22nd (which will not include absentee ballots or the complete ranked choice tallies). The complete ranked-choice tallies will be counted using the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center’s Universal Ranked-Choice Voting Tabulator, software that was recently approved by the New York City Board of Elections, most likely beginning a week after the election. Following each round of counting, the vote totals will be released.
Ranked choice voting empowers New York City voters with more voice, choice, and power. On Election Day, New Yorkers will be sure that their vote counts.