On June 22, New York City held a Democratic primary for mayor. But the contest was “plunged into chaos” and took more than two weeks to resolve after the Board of Elections inadvertently included more than one hundred thousand “test ballots” in its tabulations.
The culprit was not simply human incompetence but the system of Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV), used for the first time in New York this year. In 2019, New Yorkers approved the use of RCV in primary and special elections for the offices of Mayor, Public Advocate, Comptroller, Borough President, and City Council.
Under New York’s ranked-choice system, voters rank up to five candidates in order of preference, instead of casting a ballot for just one person. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, the last-place finisher is eliminated. Votes for the eliminated candidate are then redistributed in a series of computerized, automatic run-offs until the system creates a faux majority for someone. Throw in absentee ballots, which may not be counted until after the first round has eliminated some contenders, and the process can become highly distorted.
Sound complicated? It is. Ranked-choice voting can be confusing not only to election officials, but to watchdog groups seeking to ensure accuracy and legitimacy of the process. It is particularly confusing to new voters, the elderly, and English language learners. But even sophisticated voters can struggle. Why? Because the way the RCV distribution process works, it is possible that, by ranking someone second or third, a voter is actually knocking out her first choice pick. Thus, voters who want to maximize the power of their votes in an RCV system must consider not just the order of their preferences but also how each candidate is likely to do vis-a-vis each of the other candidates.
In New York, confusion erupted after it became clear that the Board of Elections failed to remove from the system the sample ballot images used to test the voting software. As a result, the Board inadvertently counted approximately 135,000 test ballots along with actual ballots in the first round and had to start counting again from scratch, undermining confidence in the system.
Ultimately, Brooklyn Borough President and former police captain Eric Adams was declared the winner on July 7, after a tumultuous two weeks in which a candidate with fewer first-place votes than Adams narrowed the gap in subsequent rounds, almost collecting enough redistributed ballots to beat him.
Of course, New York is not the first jurisdiction to utilize RCV. At least 19 local jurisdictions, including San Francisco, have adopted the practice. Alaska and Maine have adopted RCV statewide.
But at least four localities—Worcester, Massachusetts; Burlington, Vermont; Aspen, Colorado; and Ann Arbor, Michigan—repealed RCV after the system’s complexities became apparent. And the state of North Carolina in 2006 adopted RCV for elections for judicial vacancies but repealed the measure in 2013.
Will New York do the same? Unlikely. But perhaps Gotham city’s experience can serve as a cautionary tale for other jurisdictions considering this overly complicated electoral system.
Learn more about Ranked Choice Voting HERE.