Ranked Choice Voting: How We Gain More Power to Choose Our Representation

Tired of our two party system and representatives on the far right and far left? You might like Ranked Choice Voting.


Peter Haywood

Here is a mailer that was sent out by the New York City Board of Elections in order to educate eligible voters regarding the new Ranked Choice Voting system. It is being implemented in New York City for the first time this year, but only in primary and special elections.

Our electoral system is broken. Americans constantly feel like their elected representatives are not listening to them. So many of the issues that we face are complex and are often linked to one another, yet our two party system turns every issue into a two sided one, conservative versus liberal. And our primary system means that those on the far reaches of the political spectrum pick who makes it onto the general election ballot. While no one solution will fix this broken mess, there is one thing we can do to give voters a lot more power: implement Ranked Choice Voting.

What is Ranked Choice Voting, or RCV for short? RCV allows every voter to rank the candidates on the ballot in order of preference (first choice, second choice, etc.) instead of voting for just one candidate. Initially, only the first choice votes are counted, just like traditional voting. However, if no candidate gets a majority of all the votes (above 50%), the last place candidate is eliminated and all who voted for them get their second choice. This is repeated until someone reaches a majority. Essentially, it is an instant runoff.

Why use Ranked Choice Voting? The most simple answer is that it prevents someone from getting elected into office with less than a majority of the vote. This means that voters do not have to worry about spoiler candidates or candidates who are deemed “unwinnable.” One of the reasons the two party system has such a grip on our politics is that people are afraid of voting for third party candidates who might split either the Democratic or Republican vote. Now, a voter can vote for whomever they want and put one of the two major party candidates as their second choice.

When explaining Ranked Choice Voting to others, I often bring up the example of the 2010 gubernatorial election in Maine. In that election, voters elected an openly racist, anti-immigration Republican named Paul LePage, even though Maine is a very liberal state. LePage did not win a majority of the votes, instead slipping by with just 38%. How did he win with such a low number? It was because a liberal independent split the vote with a Democrat. LePage did not win the consent of Maine voters; instead, he won because the majority bloc split. Ranked Choice Voting likely would have prevented this by forcing LePage to reach at least 50%. Essentially, RCV prevents a situation where the majority of voters are dissatisfied.

Ranked Choice Voting does a lot more, however. Currently, most states hold partisan primaries, usually on dates not usually known for elections, that tend to only attract activists and those most politically engaged. This means that those on the far right and far left are the most likely to show up, and they end up choosing who gets to be on the general election ballot. They tend to choose candidates who are less likely to compromise and who have views that are out of touch with the majority of voters. I believe that this is undemocratic; forcing voters to show up on odd dates and vote twice for one election is too convoluted. Everyone should have a say in their representation, not just those politically engaged enough to show up for the primary.

Why do primaries exist? They exist so that multiple candidates of the same party do not split the vote. However, Ranked Choice Voting makes that concern obsolete by essentially holding the primary with the general election. Voters can just rank candidates of the same party as their top choices, and the tabulation would do the rest. Everyone who shows up to the general election has a say on all the candidates, not just those that make it past the primary. Abolishing primary elections makes the system much more accessible.

One may argue that by allowing multiple candidates of the same party to run in the general election and by empowering third parties at the same time, we may overwhelm voters with too many options. It may sound clichéd, but I fully trust voters to make the right choice. Even though the 2020 Democratic primary for president had around twenty candidates, frontrunners were able to emerge and moderate voters coalesced around Joe Biden once it became clear that he had the best chance to take down Bernie Sanders. This was possible because presidential primaries occur on multiple dates, something that is not the case for most primaries or general elections and a quirk that often suppresses turnout. That is why RCV is the much better option.

Allowing for more candidates to appear on the general election ballot could help to decrease the influence of money in the race. By not making every election one Democrat versus one Republican, big dollar donations in theory would be more spread out, meaning that grassroots candidates, including third party ones, could divide and conquer. More candidates yield a more level playing field, especially when voters do not have to worry about vote splitting.

There is one more major benefit to Ranked Choice Voting: candidate coalitions. Are you tired of candidates clogging the airwaves with negative ads about each other? Now that they need a coalition to win, they may instead try to work together. New York City is using Ranked Choice Voting for the first time in this year’s primaries for municipal elections, and it has affected campaigning. Mayor Bill De Blasio’s former legal counsel, Maya Wiley, has endorsed activist Dianne Morales as her second choice, forming a coalition with a fellow progressive candidate. If traditional voting was still being used in this election, the two might have gotten negative towards each other, since they are competing for the same group of voters. Similarly, businessman Andrew Yang has endorsed former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia as his second choice. When campaigns are more positive than negative, everybody wins.

Since New York City is implementing Ranked Choice Voting for the first time this year, I asked City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal of the Upper West Side about her thoughts on the system. “I 100% supported it,” she said. “My one concern is that people might not understand it. The city has pledged to step up and educate people.” I agree with Councilwoman Rosenthal that voter education is key. Confusion over this new system is likely just a growing pain of introducing anything new to the public and not a permanent issue. Voters are still checking a box next to their preferred candidate, just like a traditional ballot, and the process of ranking the candidates is not complicated or convoluted. The city has been sending mailers to eligible voters and running television commercials explaining how RCV works, and has set up an informational website.

So, how plausible is it for Ranked Choice Voting to be implemented nationally? It will probably be a state by state effort. After their disastrous gubernatorial election, Maine implemented RCV, and it has already delivered results. In the state’s second congressional district, the incumbent Republican won a plurality (but not a majority) of the first choice votes in 2018 but lost to a Democrat after those who voted for a liberal independent got their second choice. As mentioned before, NYC is implementing it for the first time this year, but only in primary and special elections. And voters in Alaska approved an amendment to their state constitution in 2020 to switch to RCV. While Maine and Alaska are currently the only two states to switch to RCV, awareness is growing, and there is an expanding movement to export Alaska’s ballot initiative to other states.

If you plan to vote in New York City’s primary election this year, make sure to rank the candidates. You are doing a service to democracy.

Why use Ranked Choice Voting? The most simple answer is that it prevents someone from getting elected into office with less than a majority of the vote. This means that voters do not have to worry about spoiler candidates or candidates who are deemed “unwinnable.”