By Jim Ellis
July 9, 2021 — The Ranked Choice Voting system was on major display in the New York City primary races that began with early voting on June 12 and ended yesterday with declaration of winners. Adding early voting and Ranked Choice Voting in lieu of traditional ballot casting created a 26-day election period, but did the expanded voting cycle change any results?
Ranked Choice Voting is a variation of an instant runoff, a concept that dates back to a similar system first used in Australia in 1918. The idea is to prevent a person from winning a plurality election with a just a small percentage, i.e., Brooklyn Borough president Eric Adams would have won the New York City mayoral Democratic primary with 30.8 percent of the vote on the single election day of June 22 had the traditional system been in place. This means that 69.2 percent of voters chose another candidate.
Instead, after the 26-day election period, Adams still won the party nomination under Ranked Choice Voting but with a convoluted 50.5 percent majority vote at the conclusion of a marathon counting process.
For years, mostly southern states have used a runoff system to correct the problem of a candidate winning an election with a small percentage, such as NYC’s Adams’ 30.8 percent recorded on June 22. In those places, a secondary election is held between the top two finishers at a later date. Ranked Choice Voting allegedly produces a majority result, but without the expense of running a second election.
The flaw in the RCV system, however, is that certain people are awarded multiple votes and others not. When individuals cast their ballots, they are supposed to rank their votes based upon the number of candidates running for the office in question. The person’s first choice is recorded with a #1 on the ballot, the second choice with a #2, and so forth until all candidates theoretically receive a number.
Let’s look again at the NYC Democratic mayoral primary. A total of 13 candidates were on the ballot. Since no one received majority support in the initial vote, the last place finisher, Isaac Wright, Jr., was eliminated. Election officials then go through all the ballots to find those that ranked Wright as their first choice. At this point, only those people’s second choice is added to the original total. There were only 751 ballots with Wright listed #1.
In the second round, candidate Joycelyn Taylor then became the last place finisher. The 1,204 people who ranked her #1 then had their second choices added to the overall total. The same would then happen for Paperboy Love Prince, Art Chang, Aaron Foldenauer, Shaun Donovan, Raymond McGuire, Diane Morales, Scott Stringer, Andrew Yang, and Maya Wiley, all who finished last in a round of counting. Therefore, all of the people who voted for one of these candidates received multiple votes in the same election. Those who voted for finalists Adams and ex-NYC Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia only saw their initial vote counted.
The RCV system was in place for eight city-wide or borough Democratic campaigns and two Republican races. The Democratic Public Advocate and Republican mayoral nomination contests were won outright, so there was no counting past the initial vote.
In all eight of the RCV races that did not produce a majority candidate on the first ballot, the person initially finishing first won every final outcome. In two races, the Democratic mayor’s race and the Brooklyn Borough president’s contest, the initial second place finisher was eliminated before the final round. In all other races, the initial second place finisher advanced to the final counting round.
These results prompt at least two major questions. Does the Ranked Choice Voting process actually change results after multiple rounds of counting and allowing only certain people to have multiple votes recorded, and would the outcome change if the two finalists advanced to a stand-alone secondary election on a later date after a supplemental campaign?
Neither question is answerable at this time, particularly the latter, but it appears while ostensibly solving the problem of a small plurality winner that the majority of voters opposed, the RCV system creates other problems that should be considered equally concerning. Namely, only certain voters have enhanced electoral voices, and conducting a traditional runoff election at a later date has often proven to change the order of finish. This, largely because an ensuing multi-week campaign can change voters’ attitudes and incentive to cast a ballot.
At least in the New York 2021 primary races, Ranked Choice Voting caused significant time delays in determining a winner without deposing any initial first-place finisher from the ten elections where utilized.
To date, 16 states have adopted a Ranked Choice Voting option for certain localities, most to occur later this year. It remains to be seen if the upcoming RCV test results will vary widely from what we ultimately saw in New York City once the laborious post-election day process finally concluded.