Ranked Choice Voting Can Help Reduce Political Polarization, But We Need Patience to Let it Work

By Al Vanderklipp

 Patience, and Pragmatism, for RCV in NYC

In November of 2019, after a hard-fought campaign, New York City voters overwhelmingly approved a ranked choice voting ballot question. With a ballot that allows support for multiple candidates in order of preference, RCV gives the electorate more impact on race outcomes and a greater chance of seeing a candidate they support in office, particularly in crowded races. 

RCV has a lot to offer New York City, and the nation. To win under this system, candidates need to appeal beyond a narrow base, which can reduce the risk of more extreme candidates taking office, as is so often the case with the traditional simple plurality voting method used in most of the United States. 

The vote in Congress January 6 to overturn the presidential election results in key states provides a dramatic example of a problem RCV can fix. Eighty-one of the House members who voted against the presidential results at the start of the year had entered Congress by winning a primary election with less than 50% of the vote; 62 won less than 40% percent. Republican members of Congress not supported by a majority in their first primary backed the attempted coup by more than 2:1. 

The increasing extremism demonstrated in Congress January 6 (and in many state legislatures in subsequent months) make clear that we need a major shift in our system that will allow candidates to appeal to common ground, rather than to polar extremes. In a few weeks, NYC will see city-wide use of ranked choice voting for the first time, when millions of votes are tallied for mayoral primary candidates. With a diverse crowd in the Democratic field, it’s anyone’s guess how this race will play out. But even as we look forward to the benefits of a system designed to encourage common ground, there are two important notes of caution that must be heard. 

First, no election system always outperforms all others. An outlier scenario can occur in which the result of an RCV election can be less satisfying to voters than a traditional simple plurality vote would have been. New Yorkers, and Americans generally, need to be uncharacteristically patient with the new system, judging it on performance over multiple cycles rather than on a single election. 

Second, RCV works best when candidates and advocacy groups actively educate voters on how to engage with the system. Policy preferences can be better represented, and constructive partnerships better formed, when candidates broadcast to voters their recommended second and third choices for the position. Residents and candidates will need an adjustment period to learn how the system works and to use it strategically. Our learned habits from hundreds of years of first-past-the-post politics will take time to overcome. 

This is all to say that expectations for RCV’s proper debut in the city should be tempered. If a lower-placing candidate is elected, fingers may be pointed at the new system. Public backlash, properly targeted, could lead to its removal and return of the status quo. For the greater good of our politics, this must not happen. 

It is up to local officials, residents, and experts to remind each other: like opening night at a new restaurant, it may take a few runs for all of the moving parts to work together as they should. Election administrators, candidates, and voters are all participating in a great experiment, the largest RCV trial in U.S. history. Only after several cycles will it become clear what impact this new system has had on America’s largest city, and how lessons learned in New York can help us tackle the partisanship that plagues our nation’s politics on every level. 

Al Vanderklipp is a Research Fellow with Election Reformers Network, where he contributes to ERN's work on impartial election administration and systemic reform. Since graduating from the University of Michigan's political science program in 2018, he has also worked with the Democracy Fund, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, and U.S. Senator Gary Peters.


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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rank the Vote, its members, supporters, funders, or affiliates.