Brooklyn Boro

OPINION: The benefits of ranked-choice voting

October 16, 2019 Bella Wang
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The big fights leading up to the 2020 election have been about establishing the ground rules: Who gets to vote? What kinds of machines will count the votes? What information will be collected in the census? How should district maps be drawn?

Here in New York City, we have an opportunity on Nov. 5 to vote on our own ground rules: How do we elect our local leaders? Who gets to have oversight on decisions about the city budget, policing, and land development?

With no citywide offices on the ballot, the November election is likely to have low turnout. Nonetheless, it’s an important one. It is our chance as voters to raise our hands and say yes to transparency, accountability, and, especially, to the ability to rank candidates when we vote in primary and special elections.

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The first ballot item proposes a change that would allow voters to rank up to five candidates when they vote for the mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough president, or any councilmember in a primary or special election. The votes would then be tabulated in multiple rounds. How does it work?

Let’s say you market your ballot rankings like this:
  1. Anna
  2. Bruce
  3. Carmen

Suppose that in the first round, Anna gets 75 first-choice votes (including yours!), Bruce gets 100 votes, and Carmen gets 200 votes. Then that’s 375 votes total, and Carmen got over 50 percent of the vote, so she wins outright.

But suppose that Carmen only gets 125 votes, which means that no candidate received more than 50 percent of the total vote (75 + 100 + 125 = 300 total votes). In that case, the last-place candidate, Anna, gets thrown out, and we go to an instant runoff.

In the runoff round, because Anna is no longer in the running, your second-choice candidate, Bruce, now becomes your new first choice. Carmen will also pick up some of the second-choice votes of Anna’s other supporters. Then, either Bruce or Carmen will receive a majority and win. If there are more than three candidates, there may be multiple runoff rounds if a majority still has not been achieved. That’s it!

This ranked voting process has three consequences. First, voters can express more information about their preferences. Last February, for example, the special election for public advocate featured 17 candidates, yet voters were expected to make a single choice on the ballot. Such a system creates an all-or-nothing problem, in which people cannot show secondary support for other candidates even if they liked those candidates.

Second, expensive, low-turnout physical runoff elections will no longer be necessary if the leading candidate for mayor, public advocate, or comptroller receives under 40 percent of the vote in a primary election. In the 2013 election, for example, only 38 percent of the voters who voted in the public advocate primary returned to vote in the primary runoff. Yet despite the 6 percent overall turnout, that runoff cost the city $13 million.

By contrast, elections that employ ranked-choice voting automatically capture runoff information. About 80 percent of primary voters for governor in Maine selected at least 2 candidates in 2018, as did 87 percent of voters for mayor of Minneapolis in 2017. And it comes without the $13 million price tag.

Third, City Council candidates will no longer be able to win primary elections with under 40 percent of the final tally. In 2017, of 35 City Council primaries, 13 had a candidate win with less than a majority, and 4 of those actually saw a candidate with less than 40 percent. The new proposed system’s instant runoff mechanism will prevent this from happening.

There are four other items on the ballot. They deal with the Civilian Complaint Review Board that has oversight over the NYPD, regulations concerning ethics and government, the city budget, and increased oversight over land use.

We at the League of Women Voters of the City of New York support these four proposals as well because they promote transparency, and create checks on potential abuses of power through all levels of government, from the mayor on down to police officers and land use processes.

The New York City Council’s Charter Revision Commission created these five proposals after a year of public hearings, expert testimony, and spirited debate. We believe these amendments to the City Charter truly reflect the will of the people. Let’s turn out the vote to prove it.

Bella Wang serves on the Board of Directors and as the voting reform chairperson for the League of Women Voters of the City of New York. 

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