(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
Though a new system for holding many city elections was overwhelmingly approved by voters last fall, new details about how ranked-choice voting will actually work continue to emerge.
Ranked-choice voting, which will apply to only special and primary elections for New York City government positions, allows voters to rank up to five candidates in order of preference. If no candidate hits a majority of votes, a system of vote redistribution based on second and possibly subsequent choices is executed, with ballots initially cast for the last-place candidate assigned to each of those voters’ second choices, and so on until a winner is crowned.
While several potential benefits, including the end to costly, low turnout run-off elections, helped lead to the passage of ranked-choice voting, concerns have been raised about educating voters on the new, complex system before its 2021 implementation.
Under ranked-choice voting, how the results are tabulated, when vote tallies are reported, and when unofficial winners are declared have implications for the way New Yorkers understand election results.
Newly evident details about the methodology for tabulating and reporting ranked-choice voting results in New York City are now surfacing, including areas in which the New York City Board of Elections has discretion. They come amid concerns over the recent debacle at the Iowa Democratic presidential primary caucuses and a nationwide call to remove chaos and misinformation from elections -- while New York City contests have seen their share of controversy and uncertainty.
Supporters of ranked-choice voting say it will encourage more civility in campaigning and require candidates to reach a larger base of support, with candidates hoping to be named either first or second choice on as many ballots as possible, while also eliminating the need for party primary run-offs. The 2019 Charter Revision Commission, created through City Council legislation, proposed amending the City Charter to establish ranked-choice voting (among over a dozen other proposals). Voters approved the amendment including ranked-choice voting with 73.6 percent support, while all the other proposals on a wide variety of topics also passed with similar degrees of support.
Jurisdictions using ranked-choice voting allow voters to rank candidates as ‘first choice,’ ‘second choice,’ ‘third choice,’ and sometimes more (the city will allow up to five, though voters can still just select their top choice for a position and leave it at that). If no candidate wins a majority of first choice votes upon the initial counting, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated and their votes are reassigned to the second choice candidate listed on each of those ballots. That process is then repeated as needed until a winner is declared.
Gotham Gazette has learned that, if no candidate hits a majority of votes and candidate elimination is triggered, under the law a winner will not be announced until all but two candidates have been eliminated and all ballots with other candidates listed first are redistributed among those top two finishers.
This differs from the way most jurisdictions using ranked-choice voting in the United States tabulate votes. According to the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, of the 15 jurisdictions that use ranked-choice voting to elect a single winner, all but two stop the counting and declare a victor as soon as any candidate reaches more than 50 percent of the vote.
“A close reading of the Charter shows that the 2019 Charter Revision Commission selected a far less common version of Ranked Choice Voting for New York City, and very few New Yorkers, including many legislators and advocates, realize that,” wrote Rachel Bloom, policy director at Citizens Union, a good government group, in an email to Gotham Gazette.
While falling into the minority of ranked-choice voting methods, experts say the city’s so-called “down to two” approach provides a fuller picture of the electorate’s position. They say it adds to the value of ranked-choice voting by showing a wider breadth of support for the winner in a crowded special or primary election.
“Running the count down to the final two gives you a better sense of a candidate's mandate and what coalitions they may have formed or have available to them as electeds,” wrote Christopher Hughes, the policy director and general counsel at the Resource Center, who has worked with governments and advocates throughout the country on adopting and implementing ranked-choice voting, in an email to Gotham Gazette.
A City Council source said that running the tabulation down to two is a transparency measure and will not affect which candidate ultimately wins.
But making vote tabulation more complicated, in any sense, could also have negative side effects in terms of informing voters.
At a press conference last week in Lower Manhattan and again Tuesday on WNYC radio, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a Democrat and likely 2021 mayoral contender, claimed election results will not be reported after polls close on the night of an election using ranked-choice voting. In almost all recent elections in New York City, unofficial results have been known and publicized the night of the election. Instead they may not be announced for days or may trickle-in in pieces, with the first round of counting published days before the final outcome is known -- or both.
“We are definitely not going to know on primary night in June of 2021 who the winner is. It’s going to take potentially days...You’re hearing it here, now, 17 months before the election,” Johnson said on WNYC.
He cited the length of time it will take to count votes, eliminate candidates if none reach a majority of highest rank votes on the initial count, and redistribute the votes as needed.
But the true calculus is not as cut and dry and when results are announced depends on the discretion of election administrators, who have yet to publicly discuss how ranked-choice voting will be executed. Under New York State election law, the New York City Board of Elections, which administers elections in the five boroughs, must report unofficial election results on the final night of an election after polls close. But the City Charter amendment creating ranked-choice voting gives the city BOE discretion to decide whether to, on the night of a special or primary election, report just the first round of tabulation or the results of all rounds.
According to the City Council source, the BOE will ultimately have to make a rule about its approach to reporting. The board must issue a report in June on its plan for implementing RCV in 2021, but is not explicitly required to include a determination on the reporting method then.
A spokesperson for the city BOE said it was too early to say which approach the board would take and that staff would be meeting with voting technology vendors in March to discuss the options.
In a phone interview, Michael Ryan, the New York City Board of Elections executive director, said the nuances of ranked-choice voting mean a candidate elimination might not be triggered until after absentee and affidavit ballots are counted.
“The Speaker’s statement is correct. There are going to be contests, maybe not all of them, but there are going to be contests where the outcome will be an open question for a much longer period of time than we have become used to in the city of New York,” Ryan said.
“The Speaker’s prediction is based on the findings by the Charter Revision Commission,” wrote a Council spokesperson in an email.
Unofficial election night results differ from the certified election results, which can come days or weeks after an election. In New York, election administrators have 13 days to declare official winners. To reach the official results, all votes including absentee and affidavit ballots have to be tabulated.
“In most RCV jurisdictions the election administrators have communicated to press/candidates/voters how and when results of the RCV count will be released,” Hughes wrote by email. “Most places tend to get unofficial round-by-round results out in the 24 hours after an election, but first-time implementations may take a bit longer as people work out the kinks in the process.”
The kinks, according to Hughes, are not necessarily a matter of technology. “The additional rounds of counting, if needed to determine who the final two candidates are [and] their vote shares, don't take much additional time because the software used to run the count is fairly efficient at this point,” he pointed out.
With the potential that first round tabulations can yield different vote leaders than the final “down to two” count, partial or piece-meal reporting could confuse voters and diminish confidence in the final results. “We definitely won’t know that night, we may not know the next day, and people should understand that that night candidates are going to...stand at a lectern and say, ‘ra! ra!’ but not be able to say who actually won or not,” Johnson said Tuesday of election results and the nights of special or primary elections (which now come after a period of early voting in New York for each election).
The 2021 election cycle, which will be the city’s first using ranked-choice voting, will be incredibly busy, especially for the June Democratic primaries, with hundreds of candidates expected across races for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, the five borough presidents, and all 51 City Council seats. Many of those contests will be for “open seats” with no incumbent running, traditionally leading to more candidates in the running and increasing the likelihood that ranked-choice voting will involve more triggered candidate elimination, vote redistribution processes.
Along with clarity and planning from the city Board of Elections, elected officials and advocates are calling for an education campaign so that voters know how ranked-choice voting works, both from voting and vote-counting standpoints. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, also a Democrat and likely mayoral candidate, has already pledged to start holding educational workshops.
“Clarity is needed so we can begin a comprehensive voter education program in advance of the 2021 primary where RCV will go into effect. RCV education is not only about how to vote but also how results are calculated. The last thing we want is voters not understanding why a certain candidate won,” Bloom wrote.