Ranked choice voting could change how NYC elections get fought and won

November 5, 2019 Reuven Blau, THE CITY
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This story was originally published on Nov. 5 by THE CITY.

Elections in New York City could get a lot more chummy.

Imagine Eric Adams cross endorses Ruben Diaz Jr. as his number-two choice and Corey Johnson and Scott Stringer as his other favorite candidates in the 2021 mayoral race.

Such unexpected political alliances could occur if ranked-choice voting for city races passes in Tuesday’s election as a proposed change to the City Charter, according to candidates who have run in the system in other cities and states.

An Entirely Different Kind of Election, Altogether

“It made sense for us to come together even though it wasn’t what we all had initially planned,” said Oakland City Council Member Sheng Thao, who joined forces with two other candidates, Pam Harris and Nayeli Maxoson, in a 2018 race conducted via ranked-choice voting.

The trio created a “Women’s Leadership Slate” and highlighted each others’ strengths in a YouTube video. On the campaign trail, they each asked voters to make themselves the first pick and any of the other two women their second and third choices.

They weren’t the only ones cross-endorsing a competitor.

In Maine, Betsy Sweet and Mark Eves backed each other as their second picks in the 2018 gubernatorial race.

“We’d rather have one of us than somebody else,” said Sweet, a self-described “non-traditional advocate” candidate who partly credits her third-place finish in the seven-person field to the move.

Even though she still lost, the visibility she gained positioned her for future campaigns. Sweet is now pursuing the Democratic nomination to run against Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.).

Ranked-choice voting allows voters to list their favorite candidates in
order of preference on their ballots. If no candidate gets a 50%-plus majority, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is purged.

Then, the second-place votes of those who backed the eliminated candidate then get dispersed to the remaining candidates. That happens over and over until one candidate gets more than half of the votes and is announced as the winner.

Currently, a New York City candidate for citywide office can win with just over 40% of the vote; if no contestant gets that many votes, a runoff election is scheduled.

Supporters of ranked-choice, which has been in place for years in  multiple other places throughout the country, say it helps eliminate costly runoff elections. They also say it tamps down on candidates from trashing each other with negative ads and other attacks because that could risk second-place votes.

“You are a little more cautions attacking a candidate if you are trying to get the number-two spot,” said Daniella Ballou-Aares, CEO of Leadership Now Project, a pro-democracy organization.

But Bradley Tusk, who ran Mike Bloomberg’s last reelection campaign for mayor, argues that New York City candidates will continue to deploy attacks even if ranked-choice voting becomes a reality.

Tusk called attack ads “a really effective tool. If you are down six points with a week to go, you are going to try to do everything possible to win.”

Forcing Broader Appeal

What Tusk does think could change is just how much candidates are willing to take extreme positions that could alienate parts of the electorate.

“You might not see a Tiffany Cabán type of approach,” he said, referring to the upstart Queens district attorney candidate who narrowly lost a Democratic primary in June. The former public defender had vowed not to prosecute sex work and a host of low-level crimes.

By the same token, said another player on the political scene, contenders could have to campaign to more diverse groups of voters.

“Candidates will now be forced to appeal to other communities or constituencies they otherwise might have ignored if they were trying to get a simple majority,” predicted Menashe Shapiro, a political consultant based in Manhattan.

He believes ranking candidates could in fact lead to even more negative campaigning as candidates try to weaken lower-polling rivals as they focus on becoming one of the top two choices.

Ranked choice voting dates all the way back to the mid-19th century when English writer Thomas Hare advocated for the system. It is currently in use in a handful of areas like Maine, San Francisco, and Minneapolis.

In New York City, there hasn’t been any public polling on where voters stand on the issue. But political insiders point out that most of the coverage has been positive and predict it will pass. They also note that it is backed by multiple progressive elected officials and Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, a good government group.

In Maine, Sweet said political consultants in places where the ranked-choice system has not yet been used will have a lot to learn.

“They have no idea how to do this,” she said. “Some people in our race got really bad advice.”

Sweet said she appreciated that the ranking system leads to more visibility for supposed fringe candidates like herself who had never held elected office.

“It opens up democracy,” she said. “It allows you to vote your hope and your heart and not your fears. It really opens up the field.”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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