The Nation — In New York City, Ranked Choice Voting Puts the People in Charge

Published on June 1, 2021

Rep. Jamaal Bowman and Jumaane D. Williams in the Nation:

Ranked choice voting is the fairer, more representative, future of American elections, and we’re excited to welcome it to New York City.

Elections are an exercise in the power of the people to choose a government that is representative of their communities and responsive to their needs and interests. We used that power in 2020 to drive state and national change, and this year, our local elections give us another opportunity to exercise our right to determine who our leaders are and what they stand for.

As we work at all levels of government to increase access to our democracy and voting rights and to expand access to the franchise, ranked choice voting is expanding voters’ power to choose our leaders based on what the candidates believe and by demanding what we, the voters, require. In 2021, New Yorkers can exercise this expanded power for the first time.

Ranked choice voting will allow our city’s voters to choose amongst the most diverse and talented mayoral field in history, without any fear of “spoiler” candidates, vote-splitting, or someone winning with only a fraction of the vote as opposed to a majority.

It has revolutionized our City Council races as well. Candidates who once knew they could win with 35 percent of the vote suddenly have to campaign everywhere and talk to everyone, rather than run up the score in one neighborhood. Like-minded candidates are running together, rather than against one another, and new racial and ethnic coalitions are forming citywide. If we currently have politics rooted in division, ranked choice voting will help to foster politics of addition.

This puts voters in charge. They can vote for the candidate they want to see win, without fear that will help elect the candidate they like least, regardless of where their top pick stands in the polls. In addition to empowering voters to select the candidates they believe in, rather than to make the safest bet, this enables new voices to rise in public office.

Not only will ranked choice voting multiply the impact of our vote and empower us to have greater say in the outcome of our elections; it will fundamentally change the way campaigns are run.

That’s because ranked choice voting helps voters negotiate crowded fields of candidates. It turns a wide number of choices into something empowering, rather than dividing. Instead of voting for one candidate, voters put their top picks in order. If someone wins 50 percent, they take office, like any other election. If not, the last-place candidate is eliminated, second-choice votes come into play, and an instant runoff whittles down the field until someone crosses that important threshold.

Some critics have suggested that this is too confusing. They’ve argued that it hurts candidates of color, and suggested that historically underrepresented voters might not understand how the new ballot works. Now, a new FairVote study of the nearly 400 municipal elections held nationwide using ranked choice voting since 2004 not only shows that they’re wrong but demonstrates that the opposite is true.

It confirms what New York voters have experienced throughout this campaign season so far: Ranked choice voting helps Black, Latino and Asian communities build power. It encourages coalition building and cross-community campaigning.

The study also found that winning Black and Latino candidates grew their support between the first and final ballot rounds at a higher rate than winning white candidates. It’s a sign that candidates of color benefit from ranked choice voting’s round by round counting process. It also finds that voters of color actually rank more candidates than white voters.

Perhaps most importantly, candidates pay no penalty when they run against opponents of the same race or ethnicity. According to this study, Black candidates are more likely than other candidates to challenge people of the same race or ethnicity, but under ranked choice voting they don’t pay a penalty for doing so. Instead of dividing community support, the research shows, Black candidates who run against other Black candidates in ranked choice voting elections have a higher win rate.

New York is a real-world example of how this can work. In previous elections, this bounty of choices might have led to tension between ethnic groups or encouraged insiders to coalesce around just one Black or Latino candidate, for example, to guard against vote-splitting. And candidates routinely won by tiny margins and without a majority. A Common Cause New York study revealed that when more than two candidates ran in a primary over the last three cycles, the “winner” in almost two-thirds of those races failed to win 50 percent of the vote. In almost one-third of those races, the “winner” didn’t break 40 percent.

But this time has been different. Voters now have the power that party bosses once enjoyed. Every candidate is working to build a broader coalition and reach beyond their base. The nominee will enjoy wide support across the city and with New Yorkers of all backgrounds as he or she looks to rebuild after the challenges of a pandemic.

In 2019, New Yorkers elected to put more choice on our ballots and more power in our hands when we voted to enact ranked choice voting. In 2020, we demonstrated what we can accomplish nationally if we make our voices heard in historic numbers. In 2021, with new tools, new voters, and newfound power, we can demand the kind of campaigns we want so that we can elect the leadership our city needs in a time of ongoing crisis and impending opportunity.

Ranked choice voting ensures that more voices and more choices are good for everyone. Voters know this: It’s why Virginia Republicans will select their nominee for governor with it later this month, why Democrats in five states used it during the 2020 presidential primary, and why Maine and Alaska have adopted it for their elections, along with New York City, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and a growing number of cities and towns across Utah and New Mexico.

Ranked choice voting is the fairer, more representative, future of American elections.

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