NYC Exposes the Flaws in Ranked-Choice Voting

Ranked Choice Voting

Progressive Democrats have long been among the most fervent advocates of ranked-choice voting. Many believed, though scientific data has yet to be proffered in support of their thesis, that it would have been harder for corporate DNC Democrats to cheat Bernie Sanders in 2016 had the party’s primaries been conducted using ranked-choice. Now we have a strong case study: the race for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York City.

The winner won’t be announced until July. But the big result is already in: ranked-choice voting sucks.

I could see the advantages of ranked-choice voting in, for example, the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. I might have voted: #1 Bernie Sanders, #2 Elizabeth Warren, #3 Cory Booker. For the majority of Democratic voters, there was an abundance of talent on offer in that race. Many of the candidates were well-known to the voters. But that’s not always the case.

Out of the eight or so major contenders for NYC mayor, no viable progressive emerged. This year it was difficult for many New Yorkers to identify one candidate to support, much less two or more. I didn’t have a second- or third-best choice, so my vote counted less than someone who was less discriminate or happy with any of a number of centrist moderates.

Ranked-choice voting was so complicated that registered voters had to be mailed a 48-page “NYC Votes” explainer booklet to help unravel the new scheme’s mysteries. It was daunting to me, and I’m a political junkie. Experts agree: “The Democratic Party position now is that we need to remove barriers to voting, and I think ranked-choice voting is counter to that,” Jason McDaniel, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University, told The New York Times last year. “My research shows that when you make things more complicated, which this does, there’s going be lower turnout.”

Many arguments in favor of RCV defy common sense. “Ranked-choice voting could ensure that a winner has the approval of a majority of voters by taking into account their preferences, apart from first choice. In this way, the problem of winning on a mere plurality is mitigated and public servants are chosen because they more truly reflect the electorate’s desires,” according to Quartz. But you can’t achieve a political mandate by winning a bunch of votes from citizens for whom you were just a second or third choice.

In normal elections the question of whether a particular ideological segment of the Democratic Party carries a race depends upon the number of candidates competing for that segment. Let’s say for argument’s sake that the Democratic Party is half-centrist and half-progressive. In a race in which one progressive runs against ten centrists, several of the centrists will divide the centrist vote enough to hand victory to the progressive candidate, or vice versa. Not ideal to be sure, and RCV claims to solve this problem. Under RCV, however, you have the opposite conundrum: a strong candidate who would otherwise have won can be defeated. If there’s one strong progressive in a field of ten candidates, who would have won 45% of the vote, one of the nine other centrists can win because their voters are willing to accept their second, third, etc. choices. Progressive voters, who only have one candidate they can support, see their votes underweighted.

My biggest objection would be if, as advocates favor, primaries are abolished in favor of a system in which all candidates regardless of party first run together and then the two top vote-getters face off in the general election. This might seem benign in a state that is evenly divided between parties. But what about those that are lopsided, such as in a California gubernatorial race? The weak state of the GOP there would more often than not have the effect of a general election campaign without any Republican candidate for governor on the ballot. 24% of state voters are registered Republicans. Should they be disenfranchised?

And you still have the problem of voters not feeling vested in the final result.

Quartz again: “In a 2016 essay in Democracy, Simon Waxman argues that RCV doesn’t actually lead to a candidate who represents the majority of voters. Also, an easily exhausted electorate doesn’t always rank all the candidates on a ballot, according to a 2014 paper in the journal Electoral Studies that looked at ballots from 600,000 voters in California and Washington counties. As a result, some voters end up with their ballots eliminated and no say in the final outcome.”

Weirdly, many centrists support RCV as a way to keep out “extremists”—in other words, progressives. Andrew Yang and other corporate Democrats argue that the practice encourages more civil campaigning and nonaggression pacts in which two candidates say, hey, vote for the two of us, one as your first choice and the other as your second. Truth is, there’s isn’t enough data to know whether that’s the case. Anyway, who’s to say that we want what Yang wants? Americans clearly respond to negative campaigning and sharp partisan attacks. And what’s wrong with “extremism” anyway? A compromise solution—let’s vaccinate half of Americans for COVID—doesn’t always fit the bill.

The American political system has major flaws: the two-party trap, the near-impossibility of winning as an independent candidate, the difficulty of amending the Constitution, the electoral college, the corrupting influence of money in politics, voters who are under-informed or poorly educated. RCV doesn’t fix any of these troubles. It replaces a system that leaves up to 49% of the electorate unhappy with one that is so complicated that fewer people will bother to participate in the first place.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.” Now available to order. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)


  • alex_the_tired
    June 23, 2021 10:02 AM

    Democrats and voting. Sigh.
    Remember the butterfly ballot in 2000? The dems “somehow” didn’t realize that a ballot, especially one in a precinct that skews to the very old, has to be clear, concise, simple, and in large print. No weird arrows or iconography. This isn’t an Ikea assembly manual. Gore probably would have been a lousy centrist president, but I have to think he would have read the intelligence briefings about Al Qaeda instead of vacationing in Crawford while totally not doing blow.
    But that was just for practice though.
    Picture it: Iowa. 2020. Remember the caucus where the people counting the votes couldn’t do junior high school math? Bernie Sanders had almost twice the votes that Biden did and somehow ended up with five fewer delegates when the dust settled.
    I hope we’re all strapped in/down for 2022. It’s going to be like sticking first one hand then the other into a working garbage disposal.

  • I’m not sure I understand your objection: “Under RCV, however, you have the opposite conundrum: a strong candidate who would otherwise have won can be defeated. If there’s one strong progressive in a field of ten candidates, who would have won 45% of the vote, one of the nine other centrists can win because their voters are willing to accept their second, third, etc. choices. Progressive voters, who only have one candidate they can support, see their votes underweighted.”

    I think that you are saying that 55% of the voters want a centrist, but not might all pick the same one. Under pick-one voting styles, the progressive with 45% support would likely win, but under RCV, there is a good shot that one of the centrists will win. I think that you are saying that this is a bad change, but I don’t understand why. I might not be personally happy about the outcome, but letting the 55% decide is the right thing to do, yes?

  • With RCV, it is important that all candidates from all parties *do* run directly against each other. If instead the Democrats did it by themselves then instead of voters picking their favorite candidates, they might consider choosing the most electable candidate. Avoiding this “electability” trap is one of the strong points of RCV, but only if all candidates regardless of party must compete against each other directly — having a general election as a follow up round kills the effect.

    I do agree with you that RCV must be done with fully transferable votes, as in NYC, not just the top two candidates.

  • Ninety-nine percent of the electorate is to the right of me so pleasing me is not high on any candidate’s agenda.

    But I accept the loss of the sure loser Howie Hawkins, whom I voted for just to keep my voter registration valid, just in case there is a future election that really matters for something.

    What’s more important in an election, other than who wins it, is the popular acceptance of the loss by the millions of people who voted for losing candidates.

    The illusion of fairness and justice is very important to the oligarchic ruling class, who needs the popular surrender to this illusion in order to more easily continue to roll over the interests and beliefs of millions of election voter losers.

    One of the problems with ranked choice elections is that if candidate A polls better than candidate B and candidate B polls better than candidate C, it is not unusual for candidate C to poll better than candidate A.

    It would be hard to convince supporters of candidate A and B to accept the victory of candidate C, who polled worse than both A and B.

    A decisive election result is better for oligarchic ruling class stability, but not necessarily better for those of a more revolutionary bent to who advantage accrues with instability.

    • I agree with the desire for decisive election results by the oligarchs. The quadrennial, sanctimonious media reminder of “the peaceful transition of power” is one of the more tiresome manifestations. But ranked choice voting cannot be the oligarchy’s main concern in that regard. Trump’s 2016 victory was “decided” by 125,000 votes over 3-4 states. Ol’ Savior Joe (pant load) Biden “won” by 75,000 over 3-4 states. These are hardly decisive results for anyone who wants to make a “case” against the appointed winner, as did Trump, however flagrantly and incompetently evidence-free, if full-o’-Krakken.

  • Ranked choice voting does not result in the most satisfying outcome, but isn’t that better than plurality(winner take all) voting?

  • Maybe the answer is a hybrid: only list your first 3 choices, as you did in your example. That would be simpler to understand that having to pick several choices. I also think that the results should start being tabulated perhaps a day or two ahead of the election vs. waiting until the polls are closed. With RCV, it would be exciting to hear the results off each interim tally.

    At the same time, if a candidate is running unopposed, absent anybody filing to run absentee, why not have the elected without having to have their name cluttering up the ballot?

  • alex_the_tired
    June 30, 2021 7:58 AM

    It’s a wee bit ironic that the winner in the ranked voting system in New York City wasn’t even on the ballot. Did Eric Adams win? Maybe. Did Donald Trump? Oh, hell, yes. This fiasco will be used by the Trumpers as further “proof” that all elections are rigged, backed by the fake media, and that he was robbed of his rightful second term. The democrats are going to not only get their asses handed to them in the midterms, I suspect the space where their spines never were will also be torn out and forked over.

    • Re 2022 midterms: Indeed, and Biden/Harris will then be in the Dems’ “bipartisan” glory! So the Dems won’t have much to do except get the scam together to blame China for their crashing obsolescence, we can only hope, as of Wednesday November 6, 2024.

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