What if I told you that in the next election you could not only vote for one candidate, but also vote for several – put them in the order of your preference?
Registered Democratic voters in New York City will have this option. Your mayoral election on June 22nd will be the first to use the city Leaderboard Selection – and this race will be the biggest spotlight for this system yet in the United States.
The ranked election is reforming the dreams of bizarre activists. They believe that more traditional elections, where whoever gets the most votes is simply the winner, can go wrong with multiple candidates, as someone who most voters reject may win because of the division of votes. A famous example is Ralph Nader, who is the third "spoiler" who apparently pulls votes away from Al Gore and donates major states to George W. Bush in 2000.
The ranking election can theoretically avert this result, since the voters are asked to rank the candidates according to their preference. As the votes are counted, the inferior candidates are gradually eliminated and the votes for them are redirected to the substitute elections of those voters. (In the 2000 example, if Nader is eliminated, ballots that identify Nader as first choice and Gore as second choice become votes for Gore, increasing his total.)
Voting with leaderboards is still pretty rare in the US, but it's getting less and less. Several cities (notably San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, and St. Paul) have used it for over a decade. Maine adopted it for federal racing in 2018, and Alaska will try its own version of the system next year. And with New York it has arrived in the most populous city in the country.
Election Inspector Brian Linden (left) explains the rankings to Elena Batyuk before casting her vote in New York City's mayoral election on June 14.
Mary Altaffer / AP
Proponents of the new system hope that it will have even more dramatic benefits – in fact, that it will help heal much of what they believe is suffering in American politics. They argue that the incentives of ranked voting could lead to less negative campaigns and polarization. And many of them hope that it will generate new ideas and types of candidates that were previously blocked by the two-party system and party establishments.
"Basically, a ranked poll like the one we propose provides a voter with first-choice support," said Rob Richie, president and CEO of FairVote, the nonprofit group that has done more than any other to evangelize for the ranked poll throughout the country. "This creates really positive incentives for the behavior of candidates and voters."
But not everyone was enthusiastic about New York's new system. Several black members of New York City Council tried unsuccessfully to block them last year. "Some progressive whites got together in a room and thought it was good, but it's not good for our community," said Hazel Dukes, New York state president of the NAACP at the time.
As ranked picks slowly took hold in more places across the country, questions about complexity and fairness have made its proponents persistent. Are its advantages worth the disadvantages? And what about actual voters in the real world?
What is ranking choice voting and how does it work?
The "Plurality Winner" system used in most US elections – where the candidate with the highest number of votes wins even if he does not have a majority – can get strange in multi-candidate competitions.
The very conservative Republican Paul LePage won Maine governorate with 37.6 percent of the vote in 2010, while a moderate Independent received 35.9 percent and the Democratic candidate 18.8 percent. More Democrats would certainly have preferred the Independent LePage, but they couldn't coordinate behind him. Another version of this phenomenon is the “spoiler,” where a third party candidate appears to get mostly votes from a prime candidate and assign the result to the other, as was arguably seen with Nader and Gore in 2000.
These are examples of Democrats feeling robbed, but it can happen to any party or faction. Republicans blamed Ross Perot's candidacy for the 1992 election of Bill Clinton. In party primaries, sometimes several establishment candidates split the votes and let a reformist or ideologist win, and sometimes the other way round.
The outcome can seem arbitrary: it depends on how the votes are split and who gets the biggest slice of the pie, rather than what the majority of voters want.
Enter a ranking selection that will allow voters to more effectively express their "backup" preferences. In theory, this gives something that is closer to a consensus decision. It differs in essential ways from the elections with which Americans are most familiar.
The vote: In typical US elections, a voter selects only one candidate for each office on the ballot. But in a ranked election, they can choose several, mark one candidate as their first choice, another as their second choice, and so on. The number of leaderboards for each race varies by jurisdiction, but there are five in New York City.
A sample New York City government graphic showing a ranked ballot paper.
New York City
The count: The real action happens when the votes are counted. If no candidate wins the majority in the first count, the redistribution rounds begin and underperforming candidates are eliminated one by one, reality show style:
If there are 13 candidates, the candidate fell out in 13th place after all first choice votes have been counted.
People who voted for the eliminated candidate will have their ballot papers reassigned to their second choice.
Then the twelfth-placed candidate is eliminated and these ballots are redistributed.
And so on and so on, until finally a candidate receives a majority of the remaining votes in the field that has been screened out.
The strategy: A key to understanding this system is that you cannot hurt your first choice candidate by placing others among them. Your backup rankings will only matter if your first choice candidate is eliminated from the competition (due to little support from others). One argument is that you should find out your real first choice – the person you really want to attract, strategic considerations aside – and put them first. (For an example of how even that could go wrong, however, see this New York Times article on the "Alaska Dilemma.")
From there it gets even trickier. There are 13 candidates on the ballot in New York City. Eight of them are generally considered credible – Eric Adams, Kathryn Garcia, Andrew Yang, Maya Wiley, Scott Stringer, Dianne Morales, Shaun Donovan, and Ray McGuire. But voters are only allowed to reach fifth place.
This means that voters could use all five of their rankings for candidates who are eliminated. For example, it is plausible that the race will end after the redistribution between Adams and Yang. If your ranking picks were Garcia, Wiley, Stringer, Morales and Donovan, then your ballot is “exhausted” and will not play a role in the finals.
So if you want to influence the bottom line, try to think about who the race is likely to end at. You may not like both Adams and Yang, but if you'd prefer one to the other, it might be wise to put your preference fifth.
Another complication, however, is that the race may not come down to Adams versus Yang – other polls have shown Adams versus Garcia and Adams versus Wiley as the final matchup, and it is also possible that the polls may be canceled and we get a surprise. If you want to maximize your chances of influencing the outcome, you should probably include at least three of the Adams-Wiley-Garcia-Yang Quartet in your ranking. But that could come at the expense of some lesser-known candidates you really like. It's a compromise.
New York mayoral candidate Eric Adams is campaigning in Brooklyn on June 15th.
Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images
Here's how it really works: In the past few decades, there have been 236 rankings in the US with individual winners and at least three candidates. FairVote has compiled data on how these races turn out. In about 94 percent of these elections, the candidate who led the first choice in preferences won.
For all the drama of backup selection and reallocation, the outcome is usually the same as a plural-winner system.
However, fans of the ranking would argue that the exceptions are the point. Perhaps the majority leader is really acceptable to the majority most of the time. But if it doesn't, the leaderboard pick can remove the majority leader – usually from the one who is in second place in round one.
Jared Golden (D) defeated a Republican incumbent US House of Representatives in Maine in 2018 in a ranked election only after voters were redistributed for independent candidates. Jean Quan (D) won the 2010 Oakland Mayor's Race by beating a controversial incumbent who led the first round as the anti-incumbents consolidated around them during the redistribution.
Is there another agenda behind the ranking choice voting?
All types of political actors can support the ranking selection if they see it as in their interests (like the mainstream Democrats in Maine, who blamed the plurality system for the victory of LePage's governor). But it's an odd combination of moderate centrists and established skeptical progressives who tend to really believe in the system.
Despite ideological differences, these groups have some things in common. Both share the deep conviction that the public is really on their side and would vote accordingly if there weren't any distorting influences. Both believe that if people could choose their “true” first choice (without worrying about who might win or “waste” a vote) candidates would thrive on their views.
FairVote has built deep relationships with progressive reformers, but for over a decade its chief executive officer was John Anderson, a former Republican member of Congress who ran for independent presidency in 1980 and challenged Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan; A new leading donor to FairVote and ranked election campaigns across the country was John Arnold, a headstrong Texas billionaire, who voiced his frustration with the two parties and said they should both moderate. FairVote and Arnold sponsored a specific ranking voting initiative in Alaska that passed that could help Senator Lisa Murkowski (R) defeat a Conservative challenger next year (though there are questions as to whether that would be the case in practice) .
But not just moderate. Green Party leaders Howie Hawkins and Jill Stein are fans as well, as are Rep's "Squad" members. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA). Progressives with an interest in government reform like it – Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) is a former board member of FairVote, and the liberal nonprofit Common Cause has been a major supporter.
"We urge people to fundamentally change and change the way they have chosen their entire lives in a very short time and with very little education in the wake of a global pandemic" – Christina Greer
Notably, in cities where ranking options have been introduced, the most enthusiastic supporters have often been progressives with strained relationships with the democratic establishment or the "machine". Many of these cities already had an opportunity to tackle the plurality of winners for a crowded competition: a runoff in which the two best first-round candidates face each other at a later date. The winner of a race with two candidates has a majority of the votes by definition.
But the most enthusiastic supporters of the election in cities hated the runoff elections. They pointed out that turnout usually decreased between the first election and the runoff election, claiming that this made the winner less representative. They also complained that holding another election would be expensive and inconvenient for voters who would have to vote again.
For many critics, however, the real problem may have been that they didn't like the typical runoff results: Establishment candidates tended to beat reformers or outsiders. “Big money would really spend more in runoff elections. It's easier to beat one of the two candidates negatively in the runoff election, ”said Richie. "It's easier to control." Fans hope that ranking selection for these interests will be more difficult. (The counter-argument is that these establishment forces are only getting their way by convincing more people to vote for them.)
Reformers also hope that ranked voting will make campaigns more enjoyable overall. The idea is that each candidate wants to be listed as a second or third choice by voters who do not yet support them, so that they are less likely to alienate those voters. This, the reformers hope, will discourage negative campaigns (although it will not completely eliminate them).
Who are the critics and what are the criticisms of the ranking choice voting?
Many objections to ranking lists are situational. Republicans generally dislike the system, either due to instinctive conservatism or a belief that the general election split will generally help them. (Still, the Virginia GOP implemented the system at their convention this year to prevent an extreme Trump superfan from winning the governor's nomination.) Democratic establishment forces in the cities feared they would be disadvantaged compared to the runoff system: Gavin Newsom voted against the ranking poll while serving on the San Francisco board of directors, and as governor he vetoed a bill that would have allowed it in more California cities.
But there are also more fundamental objections. I'm a weirdo who loves complexity and makes ordered lists of things. Not everyone is like me, however, and the task of classifying multiple candidates in a crowded field can make voting seem more daunting. The added element of figuring out who the last two candidates are likely to be, to make sure you use one of your limited leaderboard spots for at least one of them, can also be challenging in a complex race.
Accordingly, many fear that less privileged voters – voters who do not speak English, who have lower incomes, or who are less educated – will have more trouble with the new system if they are not adequately informed about how to use it. Maybe they are more like theirs Ballot papers that are thrown away due to incorrect placement. Or maybe they are less likely to use all of their leaderboard spots, making their ballots disproportionately likely to be discarded in a later round.
"We call on people to fundamentally change and change the way they have chosen their whole life in a very short time and with very little education in the wake of a global pandemic," says Christina Greer, political scientist professor Fordham University.
Mayoral candidate Eric Adams had his own reasons for opposing the ranked election – he feared it would hurt him – but he made that argument last year and said, "Voting can't be for the smart, the tech-savvy . It has to be for everyone, and we are not ready at the moment. "
Ahead of the second televised debate for the New York City Mayor's Race on June 10, supporters gather outside the CBS studios to celebrate their election.
Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis / Getty Images
Another point of criticism is that the ranking list election cannot fulfill its promise to produce a winner with majority support among the voters due to “ballot exhaustion”. During the various reallocations and rounds of a ranking list selection, the total number of ballot papers still counted decreases. This is in part because voters have limited ranking slots and all of their ranking picks could be eliminated. Other voters do not even use all of their seats and do not list substitute candidates, so their ballots are exhausted if their first election is canceled.
This happens a lot. Of the 128 US ranking elections that went through at least a second count, only 64 produced a winner with a majority of the voters, according to FairVote.
For example, in the 2018 San Francisco mayoral election, 251,032 votes were counted in the first ballot; in the final and decisive ninth count, only 229,408 votes remained. That was a decrease of 21,624 votes, or 8.6 percent of the total, and therefore the narrow winner, London Breed, did not get a majority of the votes cast.
Ranking list selection is more successful in gaining majority winners than the simple system of “majority winners”. But the ballot exhaustion rate begs the question of whether it is really better than a runoff. Proponents argue that the problem was that in many of these elections, voters only had three ranking spots, so the ballot papers were more easily depleted as all three were eliminated. But adding more ranking slots means adding more complexity to the voters.
Some real electoral system nerds have a different criticism. They say that, compared to alternatives like the “Condorcet vote”, the ranking list selection is insufficient to support the consensus decision “Backup”. Basically, the complaint here is that eliminating candidates one at a time in the counting process can result in the second choice of most voters being eliminated if that candidate does not have enough first choice votes. (This doesn't seem to happen very often, but it happened in the 2009 Mayor's race in Burlington Vermont and could happen in the Senate race in Alaska next year.)
After all, some just disagree with the reformers' view that “party establishment” and “negative campaigning” should be dirty words. Reformers, "who believe politics is the problem, often don't think about how parties are helping voters," said Jason McDaniel, professor of political science at San Francisco State University.
There is a way of thinking among political scientists that negative campaigns can actually be useful and helpful to voters because they can at least be more substantial than blurry, image-enhancing positive ads. In contrast, ranking voting could result in a harmless campaign on the lowest common denominator rather than a bold campaign. (Though you need to stand out to some degree to avoid getting excreted.)
Party support and campaigning can also help make voting easier for voters who trust the party. And runoff elections have their virtues – they focus the mind and bring clarity to a crowded field by offering a binary choice rather than having voters research and opinion-forming on several little-known candidates as they will in a ranked election.
When the rules change, people adapt
With a decade or more of experience with ranking options in some jurisdictions, the sky has generally not fallen, but politics has not changed radically either. The voters have adapted – and so have the parties.
The theory that ranked election gives progressives a marginal boost in the primaries in liberal cities seems plausible, but the system certainly hasn't shaken establishment power. The task of negative campaigning may have been effectively outsourced to independent groups rather than the candidates themselves.
Some studies say the ranked selection may have resulted in slightly more minorities and women winning than comparable cities that did not use a ranked selection. But it is still too early to be able to say with certainty: Ultimately, so far we have mainly been talking about a handful of high-profile mayor races and dozen of lesser-known city races. The evidence for voter turnout is mixed, but it doesn't seem like a ranking is dropping voter turnout off a cliff.
Overall, FairVote President Richie still looks to the future, despite the impressive spread of the ranking selection in recent years. The group was initially called Citizens for Proportional Representation (CPR, for "reviving democracy") in the hope that proportional election results would lead to a multi-party system. But Richie told me that switching to a proportional system was too difficult for the time being.
"Me and the people who started the organization were visionary but pragmatic at the same time," said Richie. “The country is ready for the ranking list election. We believe this is an important step towards a discussion on proportional representation. "
The real reform, which he has long believed the US needed, is multi-member districts. This would allow for proportional ranking voting – in which the seats are divided according to the distribution of votes.
But that's reform for another day.