Case Study: RCV in the 2021 NYC Mayoral Primaries

Mario Osuna
September 7, 2021

It's been a special year for New York City, at least electorally. 2021 marked the establishment of ranked choice voting (RCV) for primary and special elections in the city — and all analyses tell us it worked. Though there has been recent outcry, due to initial errors in the primary vote count, these concerns are minor for two reasons: first, the errors in counting were not actually caused by the new system, and second, this is not actually the first time RCV has been used in NYC.

NYC actually used RCV for the first time in February 2021, in a special election in Queens. Unlike our current first-past-the-post system, RCV gives electors the opportunity to choose and rank up to five candidates in order of preference. It may seem a little odd, since we're accustomed to the 'one person, one vote' principle that's guided our nation thus far — but if you dig a little deeper, this principle in fact remains, albeit with some political benefits that in the long run will benefit the city's residents (along with any other communities that decide to adopt RCV).

As a quick recap, let's review how RCV actually works in NYC. First, an elector receives their ballot. They can then choose to rank up to five candidates in order of preference, though they can also ranked fewer candidates, or vote for only one. Then, in the initial vote count, all first-choice votes are accounted for and allocated to candidates. If anyone wins more than 50 percent, they are proclaimed the winner. If not, then the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and anyone who voted for that candidate gets their second option counted. That process repeats until just two candidates remain, at which point the individual with the most votes wins.

What benefits could this electoral system bring? Well, it may not seem obvious at first glance—but there are in fact many positive consequences of RCV. Imagine an election with ten candidates, for instance, where the person with the most votes wins. Candidates two through ten could potentially all run just to oppose candidate one. Candidate one wins with 20 percent of the vote, and though they might be the candidate with the strongest base, they're also the candidate with the highest disapproval rates. Some electoral systems, like most in Latin America and many in Europe, resolve this dilemma with a two-round election system — RCV makes that process cheaper, easier, and quicker.

Now, a priori, a ranked choice system gives, as the winner, the candidate with the highest approval rates. It makes the system a truer reflection of public preference, essentially allowing voters whose first-choice candidates are eliminated early to still express their approval or disapproval of those left in the race. In other words, it eliminates the possibility of a 'majority's dictatorship,' in which those voters would be left to be governed by those chosen by a plurality — not a majority — of voters.

Consequently, in an RCV election, campaigns must build alliances and broader public consensus to win. Pandering to one particular demographic will get you nowhere, since you need widespread approval to even have a chance of winning 50 percent of the vote. In the end, voters are given ample variety of choices, and are eventually governed by a candidate that has the highest approval ratings and most support of anyone in the race.

Both the special election back in February and the mayoral primaries in June served as experiments for this system in NYC, but this was not the first city to implement such a system. In fact, over 50 cities nationwide have adopted RCV, and it seems to be a growing further as its benefits are evidenced. But the blunders from the mayoral primaries are still likely to become fuel for critics of the system.

As stated earlier in this piece, issues with the NYC mayoral primaries drew a lot of attention. Much of it negatively impacted national perception of RCV, even though the errors had nothing to do with the system itself—the NYC Board of Elections (BOE) released a vote count without clearing test ballots, which could happen in any election. It was simple human mistake. And so, while some may grab at the opportunity to criticize RCV, many are also taking the moment to introspect on the state of the BOE itself, including Democratic mayoral candidate Maya Wiley (who finished third).

But as much as the system worked properly — no irregularities associated with ranked voting happened, after all — the system is still unfortunately on the line, even in the state. Eric Adams, winner of the NYC Democratic mayoral nomination, was in fact himself skeptical of the system, and has since stated that he still believes it necessary to analyze and "make determinations accordingly." And Adams does actually seem to have been the victim of the system itself, as many of his opponents campaigned together, appropriately working within the new electoral system to create a broader support base.

While Adams’ opponents campaigned to split second choice votes among each other, in detriment of Adams’ campaign, his victory is far from open to criticism. In fact, it serves as evidence of how the system works and why it is beneficial. Even with opponents teaming up, statistically Adams remained the highest ranked candidate, and consequently the candidate with the highest approval rates.

The takeaway from Adams’ victory, and even Silwa’s parallel victory in the Republican primary, is that the system has come up with two candidates that already have a broad base to represent their party in the upcoming mayoral election. It also ensures that parties remain united behind a candidate that has been supported — albeit to different degrees — by the majority of the party’s voters. While this general election may operate under the same system we're already accustomed to (first-past-the-post), the background of the race is marked by more noticeably more consensus-building and less division. And that's a step in the right direction.

Our Newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter for alerts about new blog posts, notifications when podcast episodes are published, and more.