When Ranked-Choice Voting Comes to New York City, Expect More Voter Participation, Not Radical Changes

Voters won’t have to worry as much about having to choose between similar candidates or “throwing away” votes on third-party choices.


New York City residents voted overwhelmingly last night to approve ranked-choice voting for many local elections, making it the largest community in the United States to make this shift away from winner-take-all elections. More than 73 percent of voters said yes to the change.

But New York is not the first city to implement ranked-choice, and it's worth taking note of how it's playing out elsewhere. San Francisco uses ranked-choice voting in many local races, and right now it might be about to impact the results of the city's district attorney election.

In a ranked-choice election, voters are asked to rank candidates in order of their preference rather than simply choosing the one they most want to see win. If a single candidate gets a majority of the votes, that candidate wins, just like in more traditional voting systems. If the candidate only gets a plurality of the vote in a race with more than two candidates, that's when the ranking system kicks in. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated from the race, then the votes are retabulated. For any ballot that selected the eliminated candidate as the first choice, their second choice is used instead. The votes are recounted and then, once again, the results mandate that somebody get a majority—not just a plurality—of the votes to be named the winner. Depending on the number of races, it can take several tallies before a winner is determined.

San Francisco voters are electing a new district attorney. Incumbent D.A. George Gascón has vacated the position to run for D.A. in Los Angeles County. There's a four-way race to replace him. After the first round of votes last night, Chesa Boudin, a defense attorney big on reforms (he's played a major role in state efforts to eliminate cash bail) was in the lead over interim D.A. Suzy Loftus. Boudin was ahead of Loftus 32.9 percent to 30.9 percent. Under ranked-choice rules, because that's not a majority, Boudin is not yet the winner of the race.

When the votes were retabulated after eliminating candidates Leif Dautch and Nancy Tung, it seems more of the voters who supported Dautch and Tung favored Loftus over Boudin. The current tally has Loftus ahead 50.13 percent to 49.87 percent. If those numbers hold, Loftus has the majority required to be named the winner. There are still mail-in ballots to count, so the race is still too close to call.

But in the end, ranked-choice voting might yank Boudin's victory away. This is a feature, not a bug. And it's honestly not that different from having runoff elections that could have resulted in the same outcome. But ranked-choice voting puts it all together in one election, saving time and money and encouraging voter participation. It helps avoid the problem of vote-splitting in races with candidates with similar positions. It allows third-party candidates to run for office without being seen (often incorrectly) as spoilers. FairVote, the nonpartisan organization pushing for the adoption of ranked-choice voting, notes that turnout often plunges in local elections that have a primary with many candidates and then a runoff between the top contenders. Ranked-choice voting allows for it all to happen at once.

All of which is to say that ranked-choice voting won't necessarily result in certain types of election outcomes. Fox News' coverage of New York's vote emphasizes that uber-progressive Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and presidential candidate Andrew Yang support ranked-choice voting. But in San Francisco, the rankings are actually pulling in favor of the more centrist choice—Loftus is promising a focus on fighting property crimes and is creating a special team to target car burglaries. Don't assume that ranked-choice voting is necessarily going to pull election results in radical directions.

More from Reason on ranked-choice voting here and here.