New York City’s Board of Elections has been incompetent and dysfunctional for many decades. This sad reality has been well documented public knowledge for far too long. Now, they can add to their list of abject failures the largest Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV) election in our country’s history.
Before we rush to judgment, though, it’s extremely important to note: the NYC Board of Election’s failure does not mean that RCV, as a voting reform, is also a failure. Ironically, this important political reform is the victim of the very system it is attempting to fix—an old school, corrupt, “pay to play” patronage system where contracts are rewarded not based on expertise or track record, but instead, based on who donated the most $$$ to the winning candidates.
There are some very important lessons for us to learn from the mess in NYC.
First, ranked-choice voting (RCV) is not a “silver bullet,” fix all reform. In fact, most political reformers, like me, will tell you that RCV, by itself, is not very effective at all. RCV is best when it is paired with an open, NONpartisan primary election, and a top four or top five runoff; similar to the new electoral system that Alaskans recently adopted in November 2020.
NYC’s primary elections are partisan. In the U.S., less than 20% of local election systems are still partisan. There is no reason to divide voters and limit our choices via partisan primaries. Because of partisan primary elections, roughly 10% of eligible American voters nationwide effectively elect a supermajority (83%) of our Congressional seats. Generally speaking, only the most avid (and, often times, extreme) voters participate in our primary elections. As such, the results are not surprising; we continue to elect far too many extreme, partisan candidates whose deepest loyalty is not to our country, but to their “political party,” or even worse, their small but extremely vocal “political base.”
Critics of RCV also say it’s too complicated and confusing. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be so. In the partisan democratic NYC primary election, there were 13 candidates, but voters could only rank their top five choices. This leads to a very confusing process, where the candidate who finished last (13th), based on the number of first-place votes, is eliminated and their second-place votes are redistributed to the remaining 12 candidates. This process repeats itself until one remaining candidate has received over 50% of the redistributed votes.
RCV is much easier to explain when it is used in a final (general) election with only four or five remaining candidates. For example, imagine if RCV is used with only four candidates. If none of the candidates receives over 50% of the first-place votes, then the election goes to an “instant runoff” (another name for RCV). That means, the fourth place finisher is eliminated, and their second-place votes are redistributed to the three remaining candidates. This process continues until one of the remaining candidates has at least 50% of the votes.
Remember RCV is attempting to solve a number of electoral problems. Specifically, RCV effectively addresses issues with vote splitting (the elimination of similar candidates, even if they are the most popular), the spoiler effect (a candidate with a very small amount of support changing the outcome of the election) and wasted votes (voting for someone who is no longer in the race; which happens quite frequently with overseas and military ballots). RCV, when done correctly, helps elect a more consensus-based candidate with a much broader base of support.
There are other innovative voting methods that many political reformers prefer; namely, star voting or approval voting. The bottom line for me is that, when an election is run by a competent election authority, anything is better than our country’s dominant plurality (plus one vote wins, even with less than 50%) voting system.
In sum, there is no “silver bullet” reform that will solve all of our electoral problems. That said, we can’t get distracted by the failure of the NYC Board of Elections. There are too many big problems to solve. Right now, the biggest obstacles to electing the highest quality candidates with the best ideas is our partisan primary elections with plurality voting.
Alaska’s new “Top-4” Voting system is the best hope to combat partisan gridlock and extremism, through open, NONpartisan primary election and a Top-4 general election that uses ranked-choice voting. That said, when a partisan primary election with ranked-choice voting is run properly it is far better than the status quo.