Ranked Choice Voting Passes Major Test in New York City Primary

Interview with Rob Richie, president and CEO of FairVote, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Ranked choice voting – that is, allowing voters to cast their ballots for several candidates in their order of preference – was used for the first time in the Democratic mayoral primary election in New York City on June 22.

If voters’ first-choice candidate didn’t receive enough votes to win, their votes were then allocated to their second-choice candidate, then third choice candidate — and so on, until a victor emerged. Because there were some headline-grabbing problems with the New York City primary election, many commentators blamed the new system, when the problems in fact had nothing to do with the ranked choice voting system itself.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Rob Richie, founding president and CEO of Fair Vote, a non-profit group that advocates for legislation authorizing the use of ranked choice voting at all levels of government in the U.S. Over the past 29 years, Ritchie has seen growing acceptance of the RCV system, with more progress on the horizon. Here, he talks about New York City’s recent primary election and the future of ranked choice voting.

ROB RICHIE: Back when we started, the nature of the problem was defined differently. I think the major parties were seen as hip-locked at the time. There was a belief that we really needed third parties and energy from outside the parties, and of course some people still feel that for sure. But I think today there’s a greater belief that the parties are deadlocked, gridlocked, polarized and are pretty distinct in people’s understanding of them in they can’t work together. And so in both instances, I think the electoral system was a core reason for the politics that were being created that was troubling, but I think where we are today is more widely creating the belief that we need to change the system.

MELINDA TUHUS: So, to be clear, you’re saying early on it was like the two main parties were Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and now it’s like they’re very different, but either way, there’s a lot of reason to…

ROB RICHIE: Yeah, and it’s still tied to the deficiencies of binary politics and binary choice, and a politics where conventional wisdom suppresses candidate energy and political thought. I think that that’s so much tied to these statutory laws we have about how we vote that that can change. We’ve done a range of things about our electoral process over the years. We had a big role in instigating the National Popular Vote Plan on the Electoral College, and getting the idea out there that we could try to get all 16-year-olds registered by the time they turn 18 and were able to vote. But the electoral system has always been central, and what we’ve seen in the past five years is, it can win at the highest levels. We have two states using it for presidential elections now, U.S. senate elections; we’re up to more than 50 cities using it around the country, and of course New York City just used it.

MELINDA TUHUS: I know Maine is one of them; what’s the other state?

ROB RICHIE: Alaska, which will use it for the first time in federal elections in 2022 and in the presidential election in 2024.

MELINDA TUHUS: I was interested in talking to you because there were definitely problems with the mayoral Democratic primary election in New York City, but they didn’t seem to have anything to do with the new form of voting, at least to me. But that’s what got blamed. It sort of became the scapegoat. But I guess from actual data that you have, it was a big success, right?

ROB RICHIE: Absolutely. It was a great case where the fundamentals of the election were exceptionally strong. Voters handled the new system well. They responded to exit polls enthusiastically. The outcome on who won and lost was just phenomenal in the sense of creating the conditions where change could happen. For example, women have never had more than a third of seats on the City Council. Currently they have only 14 out of 51. When the dust settles they’re going to have more than 29 seats – more than double – and an absolute majority will be women of color, most of whom are under 40. I think a lot of people could run because of ranked choice voting. No one was telling them, you know, Wait your turn. And the best candidates could emerge out of these fields and form coalitions and connect with voters. The number of people who voted for mayor in the primary this year was 25 percent more than how many had voted in 2013, the last competitive mayoral race.

MELINDA TUHUS: Now, can you make a connection directly to ranked choice voting? That seems like it would be a little hard to make. Is that what you’re saying?

ROB RICHIE: We do think so. I think ranked choice voting creates a politics of engagement. The way you win with ranked choice voting as a candidate is to engage with more voters, and for voters the incentive is to learn about more candidates, and through what we call that virtuous cycle, I think it creates overall more interest. And not just for mayor, but all these down-ballot races. There were a number of competitive elections (in NYC). Way down at the city council level there were city council candidates driving turnout and encouraging people to participate who normally wouldn’t.

MELINDA TUHUS: What’s next? Are there other states teed up to embrace ranked choice voting like the two that already have?

ROB RICHIE: Ranked choice voting is on a really exciting roll, from our perspective. In the last few years it’s won on almost every ballot it’s been on. It lost in Massachusetts, but it won in three other statewide ballots. It had to win twice in Maine. The last 10 cities that have voted on it have voted Yes by an average of more than two to one. We’ve got two more cities, at least, voting this November. We have 24 cities using ranked choice voting for the first time in November; 21 cities in Utah that have never used it, and two in Utah that have. So, you’re starting to see this expansion into just a whole mix of states. Four states passed bills that advanced ranked choice voting. And in Congress there’s legislation, the S1 bill that has a full package of electoral reforms and pro-voting rights measures, has two provisions on ranked choice voting: one would require all new voting equipment be ready to run ranked choice voting. I think that we’re on a very positive trajectory.

Learn more about ranked choice voting and FairVote at fairvote.org.

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