Voices & Choices

RCV and the polls

RCV and the polls

The polls from the Democratic side of New York City mayoral’s race feel like an old Abbott and Costello routine.

Who’s on first? Most likely it’s Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams, with a lead in all major polls, though one that tends to be close to the margin of error. But what candidate’s second? Marist says it’s former city sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia. Ipsos says it’s entrepreneur Andrew Yang. Emerson says it’s former City Hall counsel Maya Wley. 

On third? I don’t know. Marist says Wiley. Emerson has Garcia edging out a fourth-place Yang. Ipsos says it’s Garcia a step ahead of fourth-place Wiley.

The polls are close and confounding. It’s not their fault. It’s difficult and there’s going to be variation. It’s a close race between 11 candidates. It’s a mid-June primary at a time when most New Yorkers are thinking about a post-pandemic summer, not politics. 

But the inability of polls to identify a clear second place candidate (let alone third, fourth, fifth and sixth) -- and that have captured momentum surges for all four of the top finalists in recent weeks -- is yet another reason why New Yorkers should be thrilled for ranked choice voting.

This is the first time New York City primary voters will select their party’s nominees with ranked choice voting. RCV gives voters the power to rank their top candidates in order, in this case from one to five. If no one clears 50 percent in the first round, it triggers a series of instant runoffs that narrows the field down to two. 

Ranked choice voting has a lot of advantages. It’s an especially useful tool to avoid a plurality winner in a race with as many candidates as this one. It puts an end to spoiler candidates and wasted votes. And it encourages candidates to campaign widely and talk to everyone.

It also helps voters cast a smart and strategic ballot in a race where there is so little clarity over who the top two candidates might be. Those polls? Ignore them. Vote for the candidates you like best.

Under the old method, that wouldn’t have been possible. Voters might need to study these polls and try and ascertain who’s first, second and third, even as the polls themselves disagreed. Someone who worried their favorite candidate was in fourth, fifth or sixth place might have moved on for someone else, wanting more of a say over the city’s next mayor. But in a large field, with polls all over the map, voters might as well be voting blindfolded. They might believe they’re voting strategically, casting a ballot for the candidate Marist says is in second place, if their favorite is in fourth. But what if the candidate the poll has fourth is really second? 

After all, Marist has Adams out front by seven percentage points, with Garcia, Wiley and Yang bunched tightly behind. But with a margin of error of 3.8 percent, Garcia could be in first place, or fourth. 

Emerson has it even closer: Adams 23, Wiley 18, Garcia 17, Yang 14. That margin of error, however, is 3.7 percent, which means Wiley could be first or fourth. Ipsos has a different race: Adams 28, Yang 20, Garcia, 15 and Wiley 13, with a “credibility level” of 2.8.

A Citizen Data poll conducted for FairVote, meanwhile, found Adams with a more commanding lead, with 32 percent, with Wiley and Garcia knotted at 18 and Yang a more distant fourth. The survey has a margin of error of 3.5 percent.

Who’s on first? What’s on second? I don’t know’s on third, indeed. How confusing. Here’s a better idea: Vote the candidate you like best first. The one you like second-best second. And so on. And if you want more help casting an empowered ballot that doesn’t involve studying polls at all, check out FairVote CEO Rob Richie’s essay last week in the New York Times. 

Voting shouldn’t resemble a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey. RCV creates better elections and gives voters more power. And those polls? Now you can treat them as the snapshot they are, instead of giving them sway over your ballot.


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