Ranked-Choice Voting: No Silver Bullet

In November 2019, New York City approved a massive overhaul to the city’s election system. New Yorkers’ answer to Ballot Question 1 switched the city’s elections over to a ranked-choice voting or “instant runoff” model, thereby nixing the need for successive elections to cull candidate pools. Passing with 73% support, the measure will add New York City to a small but growing group of ranked-choice-using nations, states, and cities such as Australia, New Zealand, Maine, San Francisco, and Oakland. The Big Apple’s new model will debut in 2021 and apply to primary and special elections for mayor, comptroller, borough president, public advocate, and the City Council.

Under their new ranked-choice voting system, New Yorkers head once to voting booths, where they rank up to five candidates in their order of preference. (The system doesn’t toss ballots with only one candidate marked.) If a candidate wins more than 50% of the first-choice votes, that candidate wins. But if not, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and their votes are redistributed to the four remaining contenders per voters’ next-up preferences. The process continues again and again through successive “rounds” until one candidate wins a majority. 

Proponents of RCV claim it will disincentivize candidates from catering to the extremes or campaigning negatively, since negative campaigning against a voter’s favorite candidate could dash their chance to win second-choice votes. Though the topic isn’t well-studied, surveys taken by FairVote and the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll in 2013 and 2015 found that likely voters in typical plurality-voting cities were more likely to perceive negative campaigning than likely voters in surveyed RCV-voting cities. 

RCV advocates also say it will bolster voter turnout, compel candidates to campaign to more people, lower election costs by nixing the need for runoffs, ensure wins from majority-preferred candidates, and eliminate political spoiler effects. But many of these claims are theoretical, with little empirical research to decisively support them. According to one study on San Francisco’s 2005 municipal election, for example, RCV did increase voter turnout by 2.7 times, and did appear to stop weaker candidates from siphoning off votes from stronger ones. But there is no reliable research on whether candidates in RCV systems aim spending at broader voter coalitions. Regarding election costs, a surprising 2018 study by the MIT Election Lab found that costs in RCV-implementing cities were actually no lower than costs in cities without it. And as for the attractive idea that RCV ensures a win from the majority-preferred candidate, it’s technically untrue. A clever 2014 study by Craig Burnett and Vladimir Kogan found that some candidates in RCV systems do win without a majority of total ballots cast, because many ballots are silent on finalists and therefore don’t factor into the last round. If a voter ranks only a few candidates who are all eliminated quickly, their ballot becomes “exhausted,” meaning it’s thrown out of the final round for failing to rank the finalists.       

Opponents of RCV fear the system will bring negative unintended effects. According to Burnett and Kogan, exhausted ballots⁠—or those that don’t factor into the last round—made up at least 9.6% of ballots in the four American elections they studied. Critics point out that ranked-choice might not matter in cases where popular candidates win by large margins, like when 90% of Australian constituencies elected the candidate with the most first-preference votes in 2013. But the opposite problem could appear too, when RCV lends the win to candidates who fail to muster the plurality of first-choice votes. Burnett and Kogan argue that compelling voters to rank candidates gives them a more laborious and time-consuming cognitive task, which benefits people who have more free time and who’ve mastered the platforms of even obscure candidates. In other words, RCV could disempower voters with lower education or income. For those who know little about the smaller players, RCV still encourages them to rank multiple people, thus privileging highly-informed voters over less-informed ones.

In short, it’s tricky to say with any certainty whether ranked-choice voting will deliver the benefits its supporters promise. But with New York City embracing the system, we now have one more local laboratory of democracy to put these claims to the test in the coming years.