In early November, New York City joined a small but growing list of cities that have embarked on an ambitious experiment in election reform. Advocates of “ranked choice voting” (RCV) hope the reform will increase voter participation, open up the system to a more diverse set of candidates and discourage negative campaigning.
With RCV, New Yorkers will be able list their preferences (first, second, third, etc.) for mayor and other local elected offices. If no candidate receives a majority there is an “instant run-off.” Votes for candidates with the fewest votes are transferred to another candidate until a majority winner emerges.
First and foremost, RCV has the advantage of preventing candidates who are actively opposed by a majority of voters from winning. The reform also serves as a potential disincentive for negative campaigning. Candidate A has an incentive to avoid words or strategies that arouse the hostility of supporters of candidates B or C in the hope of winning those votes on a second or third round of balloting.
RCV also eliminates the problem of “spoiler” candidates. If an independent or longshot candidate enters the race and fails to achieve a majority, the votes of their supporters aren’t wasted. They’re transferred to another candidate with a better chance of winning. Without wasted votes and the spoiler effect, voters don’t feel that they are always choosing between the “lesser of two evils,” which makes the act of voting more satisfying.
The reform has already been adopted by nearly twenty localities, a list that includes the communities of all shapes and sizes, from the tiny mountain town of Basalt, Colorado, to the high-tech, tourist Mecca of San Francisco, California. In 2016, Maine became the first state to adopt RCV for state and federal elections.
As a historical note, the National Municipal League first endorsed a form of ranked choice voting for city council elections in its 1915 Model City Charter. The reform was adopted by more than two dozen cities—including New York and Cincinnati—during the heyday of the municipal reform movement.
It was one of the strategies municipal reformers of the early twentieth century employed to open up the system in cities where powerful urban party machines enjoyed near monopolies on local boards and commissions.
Of course, as the economist Kenneth Arrow once demonstrated, there is no such thing as a “perfect” voting system. RCV is susceptible to a form of “strategic voting.” With RCV it is possible for two candidates to team up against a third candidate if their supporters go along with a concerted strategy.
Still, in this day of disaffected voters and polarized politics, a reform that opens up the system to a broader array of choices and incentivizes campaign civility may be worth a try.