Washington Post: Ranked-choice voting is already changing politics for the better

Published on May 4, 2021

Katrina Vanden Heuvel in The Washington Post:

If you’ve been following New York City’s mayoral race, you might have noticed an unusual trend. Candidates have openly discussed their personal second choices. Activist groups have issued joint endorsements of competing candidates. Some of these competing candidates have even appeared together at shared promotional events.

These signals of unity haven’t come out of nowhere. They’re direct consequences of a new electoral system: ranked-choice voting. In 2019, New Yorkers voted to implement ranked-choice voting for local primary and special elections, becoming the largest voting population in America to do so. The city’s June primary elections are the first to use this system, which lets voters rank multiple candidates instead of selecting one. When the results are tabulated, if any candidate has over 50 percent of the vote, he or she wins; otherwise, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated — and his or her votes are distributed to their voters’ second choices. This process repeats until a candidate crosses 50 percent.

Already, this new system is changing the race for the better. The first-past-the-post system used in most U.S. elections causes significant problems: To avoid wasting their votes, voters are incentivized to choose the candidates they deem likely to win, not just the candidates who most closely align with their values. Candidates of similar ideologies have to compete against one another for a single spot in a “lane,” often creating personality-based rifts within voting groups. And a political movement’s hopes end up resting upon a single person; if that candidate stumbles, so can the movement’s prospects. Ranked-choice voting solves all these problems.

As my colleague John Nichols puts it, ranked-choice voting means voters “no longer have to be pundits, fretting about who is up or down in the polls.” Instead, they can support several candidates whom they agree with. Even if their top choice (or two, or three) is eliminated, voters can still have their preferences reflected in the final result.

Ranked-choice voting also significantly reduces candidates’ incentives to go negative against their opponents. Under the system, candidates need to focus on being one of the choices voters rank, rather than the only choice, which encourages less mudslinging and more affirmative case-making for each candidate. Rob Richie, president and CEO of FairVote (and a staunch advocate of ranked-choice voting), has been saying as much for years: “In a ranked-choice election, you need to figure out ways to connect with more voters, and the best way to do that seems to be more direct campaign styles of … earning their respect.”

Finally, ranked-choice voting allows electoral movements to be bigger, and more stable, than any one individual. We are seeing this play out now among New York progressives. As Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure ends, progressives have a chance at a fresh start. But several candidates are claiming the progressive mantle, while moderates like businessman Andrew Yang and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams lead in a recent poll.

Previously in New York, activists would have to choose between not endorsing any candidate (and missing the chance to make an impact) or getting behind one candidate (and risking alienating others and/or backing a failed campaign). But in this race, we have seen groups openly support multiple progressive candidates. The Working Families Party initially endorsed New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer as its first choice, former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales as its second and civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley as its third. Sunrise Movement NYC, an environmental group, originally co-endorsed Stringer and Morales. The New York Progressive Action Network issued a joint endorsement of Morales and Wiley.

By spreading political capital among multiple prospects, these organizations can stay committed to electing a progressive even if one candidate falters. For instance, last week, Stringer was accused of sexual assault by a woman involved with his 2001 public advocate campaign. (He has categorically denied the allegations.) Several lawmakers and organizations — including the Working Families Party and Sunrise Movement NYC — have rescinded their endorsements, but those who issued ranked endorsements to begin with can pivot to support the other campaigns they backed. Certainly, Stringer’s scandal could cost New York’s progressive movement some momentum — but ranked-choice voting may make it easier to press forward regardless.

Ultimately, ranked-choice voting facilitates more productive, issue-driven campaigns. And New York is far from the only place in the United States that could benefit. Other major cities like San Francisco and Minneapolis have used ranked-choice voting for years. Both Maine and Alaska recently implemented the system statewide through ballot measures. And just this past weekend, Austin voted to adopt the system, though the city will still need to overcome statewide legal limitations.

At the national level, the For the People Act, which passed the House in March, contains a clause that would provide funding for states to implement new voting systems capable of counting ranked ballots. If passed in the Senate, it could remove a logistical hurdle for future jurisdictions seeking to implement ranked-choice voting.

In an era of heated divisiveness, cynical punditry and exhausting negativity in politics, ranked-choice voting could be the systemic electoral change we need to foster substantive campaigns — and build healthier, more collaborative and more sustainable movements for change.

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