The New York City primary election was historic: it marked the city’s first use of ranked choice voting (RCV) in a New York primary election, replacing a previous practice of runoff elections held the following month after primary votes were cast. It was the largest city-wide RCV election in American history. New Yorkers showed up in force, with the highest turnout in 32 years. San Francisco’s 2018 citywide elections marked the previous high. The following FairVote analysis was done before the final count will add a small number of absentee ballots to the total.
More than 941,000 voters participated in New York City’s 2021 primaries, the highest since 1989*. Only 464,000 voters - less than half - participated in the 2017 primary. In FairVote’s pre-primary poll with Citizen Data of Democratic voters citywide, nearly four times more voters indicated that their new power to rank candidates was more likely to bring them to the polls than those who said they would be less likely to vote, with the biggest positive impact on Hispanic voters. A second FairVote/Citizen Data poll of Staten Island Republicans also found RCV was more likely to lead to voting than not, with Hispanic voters again most likely to be positively affected.
- Voters also turned out in record numbers for down-ballot races: 92% and 87% of voters who voted for mayor also participated in elections for comptroller and public advocate. This is a five-point increase in the number of New Yorkers who chose to cast a vote for comptroller and a ten-point increase in those who cast a vote for public advocate compared to 2013 numbers, the last time these offices were contested.
Better Outcomes, Reflective Representation
- Ranked choice voting elections level the playing field for more candidates to campaign without worrying about “waiting their turn” or “spoiling the election” for ideologically or demographically similar candidates. The best candidates learned how to engage with more voters, and voters had new reasons to learn about the candidates. As a result, winners tend to reflect their constituencies more accurately in terms of race, gender, and ideology. Eric Adams, is likely to become the second African American mayor in New York City’s history.
- 29 of 51 city council seats are projected to go to women**, the highest number in city history and up from 14 today. RCV elections tend to be more civil because candidates are incentivized to find common ground with one another and disincentivized to “sling mud” at opponents for fear of alienating their supporters. RCV also encourages coalition-building and grassroots community campaigning. Anecdotal evidence suggests that women are more likely to run in a positive campaign environment and are more comfortable asking voters to rank them as a backup choice.
- Of those 29 women, 26 are people of color, and 18 are under 40 years old. Candidates of color won 35 Democratic city council primaries, up sharply. This shift marks increased representation: the increase in Black and Hispanic city council primary winners/borough president winners reflect constituency demographics more accurately than in previous races. For example, 29% of New York City’s population is Hispanic***, but only 21% of current councilors are Hispanic. The incoming council is projected to have 25% Hispanic councilors, a closer reflection of the city’s population.
Voters Support for Ranked Choice Voting
- Edison Research/Rank the Vote NYC exit polling of primary voters was very encouraging - strong support for RCV and ease of use.
Taxpayers Save More than $10 Million - and a Bitter Runoff
- Based on first-round results, the mayoral and comptroller elections would have required costly runoff elections, estimated at well over $10 million, and potentially far more****.
- The runoff would have required New Yorkers to come back as many as 8 or 9 weeks later -- a far greater delay than done in the past before new state voting laws governing early and absentee voting.
- In the last citywide runoff in 2013, voter turnout declined by more than 60%, and the bitter nature of the campaign led its winner Letitia James - now New York’s attorney general -- to endorse adoption of ranked choice voting in New York City.
Ballot-Counting Can Improve
Much of the national media focused on how the RCV results were presented to the public more than the outcomes themselves. The New York City Board of Elections suffers from a patronage system that has led to decades of controversy about its performance. Although it did key things well in implementing RCV, it was slow to present results due to current state laws and made one huge unforced error when including test “dummy” ballots in its first unofficial RCV tallies. The City and state could update its laws to allow New York City to join the majority of cities with RCV in either effectively finishing their RCV tallies on election night or at least running initial tallies.
What’s Next for Ranked Choice Voting Around the Nation?
New York City marks the latest city to embrace ranked choice voting successfully. In November 2021, 24 cities will use RCV for the first time: one in Massachusetts, two in Minnesota and 21 in Utah, including Salt Lake City. The number of jurisdictions using or about to use RCV is now over 50, including two states - Alaska and Maine - that use it for their elections for president, U.S. Senate and U.S. House.
When on the ballot in the past five years, RCV has nearly always won, including in two statewide measures and with winning percentages averaging more than 65 percent of the vote in the 10 cities voting on it in 2019-2021. The latest wins in 2021 were in Vermont's largest city of Burlington and in Austin, Texas, the nation's 11th largest city. Those that may vote on RCV soon include King County (WA), Denver (CO), Broomfield (CO) and Clearwater (FL). Pro-RCV legislation was introduced in Congress and 29 states this year, with four bills signed into law.
If New York’s primary is any indication, ranked choice voting will continue to yield fairer, better election results in practice and expand its use into every state.
* In years that went to runoffs, the round with higher turnout is used to measure size of turnout.
** Projections assume each party will win the same seats it won in 2017.
**** Fiscal Policy Institute analysis, June 2018 https://fiscalpolicy.org/brief-ranked-choice-voting-saving-money-while-improving-elections