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What Did New York’s Mayoral Primary Tell Us About Ranked-Choice Voting?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Things got a bit harried in the New York City mayoral primary election last Tuesday afternoon after the Board of Elections accidentally counted 135,000 test ballots and released results including those ballots. 

The Board removed the results from its website that evening citing a “discrepancy,” but the erroneous results had shown the race between front-runner Eric Adams and his closest contenders, Kathryn Garcia and Maya Wiley, significantly tightening. This, in turn, sparked accusations around the role ranked-choice voting played in this error, as candidates such as Adams are not fans of the system.

But while ranked-choice voting isn’t the culprit for last week’s mishap — it was Board mismanagement — it did serve to expose some of the debates around ranked-choice voting, including whether it’s a fair system of voting and whether voters even want it.

Let’s start there. Why is ranked-choice voting such a hot topic of debate?

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alex (Alex Samuels, politics reporter): Well, for one, it’s still a relatively new system in the U.S., and there are conflicting theories on whether it is beneficial (i.e., it helps ensure the winner has the approval of the majority of voters) or detrimental (i.e., it is too complicated or expensive).

But right now, at a time when there’s disillusionment with our election system, the Board of Elections error provides fodder for former President Donald Trump and his supporters that U.S. elections are inherently fraudulent or illegitimate.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): It’s a change to how we conduct elections, and in a country where most elections are won by the candidate with the most votes without any question about secondary preferences, this is a big change! 

New York City is also far and away the largest jurisdiction to employ ranked-choice voting, so the system is very much under the microscope because it’s no longer a curiosity used by a few cities and Maine. 

sarah: Do we have any sense of whether New Yorkers supported making their elections ranked-choice voting?

geoffrey.skelley: Well, New Yorkers overwhelmingly backed the referendum to implement ranked-choice voting in 2019 — 74 percent voted in favor. Granted, 2019 was a low-turnout election in New York considering no major offices were on the ballot. Still, that was a pretty overwhelming vote in support of ranked-choice voting. 

alex: Before the Board of Elections error, a NY1/Ipsos poll found that 80 percent of likely Democratic voters said they were comfortable using ranked-choice voting. The New York Times also interviewed dozens of early voters in New York and found that many people were OK with ranked-choice voting.

And a day before the Board of Elections fiasco, a poll from Common Cause New York and Rank The Vote NYC found more than 75 percent of voters want to use a ranked system again.

sarah: OK, so it seems fair to say that polls show that New Yorkers overwhelmingly support the idea of ranked-choice voting. 

Why then has ranked-choice voting emerged as a flashpoint in the race with Adams speaking out against it?

Eric Adams standing at a podium with his campaign sign on the front of it.

related: Eric Adams’s Lead In The New York Mayoral Primary Was Just Too Big To Overcome Read more. »

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I think it’s as simple as this: Adams would very likely have won under a first-past-the-post system (31 percent of New York Democrats ranked him first, while only 21 percent ranked Wiley first and only 20 percent ranked Garcia first), while Garcia came very close to winning under ranked-choice voting. 

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, if Adams’s chances were improved by ranked-choice voting, then I think he’d be singing a different tune.

alex: Adams’s campaign has spoken out against ranked-choice voting and even backed a lawsuit seeking to halt its implementation since he has argued that the system disenfranchises both non-English speakers and voters of color, who might not have the time or resources to properly research every candidate or how the new system works. (According to our previous analysis of 2019 U.S. Census data, 62 percent of New York City citizens of voting age are nonwhite.)

But it’s not entirely clear that ranked-choice voting affects voters of color negatively, at least on the ballot. For example, in California, the voting-reform advocacy group FairVote found that in districts with ranked-choice voting, plurality-white districts that were not white-majority elected a nonwhite representative 60 percent of the time. Before ranked-choice voting, it was only 35 percent of the time.

sarah: On the question of turnout, though, this 2015 study of San Francisco’s mayoral races found that ranked-choice voting did, in fact, decrease turnout among Black and white voters, younger voters and voters who lacked a high school education, while the same wasn’t true of more experienced or educated voters, perhaps backing up some of Adams’s claims.

How mixed is the research on whether ranked-choice voting negatively affects voters of color?

alex: It’s definitely still an open question to whether ranked-choice voting can help or hurt candidates of color. While some experts say the former, others argue the system could lead to a lone candidate of color getting edged out by opponents who conspire against him or her. As far as voters of color go, though, I’m less clear on that.

There is definitely an age gap in who seems to understand how to use ranked-choice voting. A 2019 research paper from Jason McDaniel, a professor at San Francisco State University, argues that ranked-choice voting leads to lower voter turnout overall. He cites three researchers who looked into the implementation of ranked-choice voting in Minneapolis, and they found that while most voters understood ranked-choice voting “perfectly” or “fairly well,” older voters were less likely than younger voters to understand the system. Higher education levels were also associated with a better understanding of ranked-choice voting.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, as Alex noted, some research has found a pretty pronounced age effect, but other research has pushed back on the idea that nonwhite voters are more likely to struggle with ranked-choice voting than voting for only one candidate.

sarah: What about other research on ranked-choice voting? That is, does it help reduce partisanship in elections, as proponents claim? Or make elections less acrimonious?

nrakich: It doesn’t really live up to the promise of making campaigns less acrimonious. The Democratic primary for New York City mayor was a nasty affair, and there was still plenty of negative campaigning in the 2018 Maine gubernatorial primary, as I wrote at the time

geoffrey.skelley: Although as we saw with Garcia and Andrew Yang, ranked-choice voting can lead to candidate alliances that could be an indication of less negativity in a way. 

nrakich: It’s true that ranked-choice voting may encourage minor candidates to play nice with one another in hopes of picking up the others’ supporters, but it ultimately doesn’t remove the incentive to tear down the front-runner. At the end of the day, a lower-polling candidate still needs to overtake the front-runner to win. 

sarah: What about this idea that ranked-choice voting boosts some of the non-major-party vote share? That is, by having multiple choices, voters are encouraged to vote for candidates based on their sincere beliefs versus just voting for the candidate they think will win.

Does ranked-choice voting live up to that promise?

nrakich: There is some evidence that ranked-choice voting helps third-party candidates, which could be an indication that it makes voters more comfortable voting for their true first choices instead of feeling like they have to choose between Democrats and Republicans for their vote to matter. MIT political scientist Jesse Clark has studied Maine’s elections under ranked-choice voting and found that non-major-party candidates gained 5-6 percentage points because of ranked-choice voting. 

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, to Nathaniel’s point, in the 2018 election for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, about 8 percent of the vote initially went to third-party candidates, but after reallocation in the ranked-choice voting process, Democrat Jared Golden ultimately narrowly defeated Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin. 

In other words, ranked-choice voting does seem to boost third-party vote share, as that 8 percent figure would be high for a more typical winner-take-all election.

alex: FairVote did find, however, that ranked-choice voting doesn’t necessarily increase the chances of a third- or independent-party candidate winning. Rather, the benefits, they argue, is that it allows third-party and minor-candidate supporters to rank their preferred candidate first without feeling like their votes are wasted — as third-party votes might be in a more traditional election. 

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nrakich: Yeah, the most obvious point in ranked-choice voting’s favor is that it can produce a winner who is truly the preference of a majority of voters in situations when one side’s vote would otherwise be split by a strong third-party challenger.

The Golden-Poliquin race is a great example of that. Even though Poliquin won a plurality of first-place votes, it was pretty clear that, once you factored in the preferences of third-party voters, a majority of voters in Maine’s 2nd District that year liked Golden better than Poliquin.

That said, this kind of results inversion doesn’t happen very often. FairVote has tracked 398 single-winner ranked-choice voting races in the U.S. since 2004, and 97 percent of them (383) were won by the candidate who got a plurality of first-place votes. 

alex: Nathaniel, I’ve seen some opponents of the system claim that ranked-choice voting doesn’t necessarily lead to a candidate who represents the majority. For example, some voters might end up with their ballots essentially eliminated and no say in the final outcome if they ranked three out of five candidates, for example, and all three were eliminated. 

In a 2016 essay, writer Simon Waxman argues some of the same points. “[T]here are reasons for skepticism when it comes to [ranked-choice voting] — and not just RCV itself, but the larger notion that what is broken in American politics, and therefore what will fix it, is procedure.”

geoffrey.skelley: Another concern is that ranked-choice voting risks tiring voters out — what’s known as “ballot fatigue” — if they have to rank, say, five candidates for a large number of offices, that could lead them to leave some spots blank or to not even finish voting for all offices or other ballot questions.

nrakich: Yeah, no voting system is perfect. Imagine, too, a scenario where there are three candidates: a liberal, a moderate and a conservative. The moderate might be the second choice of both liberal and conservative voters, but if the moderate doesn’t also get more first-place votes than one of the other two, the moderate will be the first one eliminated under ranked-choice voting! That said, ranked-choice voting does seem less imperfect than a straight-up plurality system like most of the U.S. uses — at least when it comes to determining the rightful winner. 

There are other ways in which ranked-choice voting may be worse, though. For instance, the MIT researcher Clark also found that ranked-choice voting in Maine “produced significantly lower levels of voter confidence, voter satisfaction, and ease of use. It also increased the perception that the voting process was slanted against the respondent’s party.” As we mentioned earlier, that kind of voter confusion could lead to depressed turnout. Plus, further undermining public confidence in our elections is the last thing we need right now.

On the other hand, ranked-choice voting is a new innovation in most of the jurisdictions now using it, including Maine. So I’d guess that those problems could be mitigated once voters start getting used to the system. Better voter education and ballot design could also help.

In other words, I think it’s too early in ranked-choice voting’s lifespan to reach a definitive conclusion about it.

alex: Right, as Nathaniel said, ranking candidates is definitely more complicated than selecting just one. But I don’t think there’s sufficient evidence to say it’s a barrier to voting. 

In Maine, turnout for both the 2018 and 2020 elections — the first elections to use ranked-choice voting — was incredibly strong. And in New York, too, primary turnout was incredibly high; plus, as I mentioned earlier, New Yorkers have said they found ranked-choice voting to be pretty easy and straightforward.

nrakich: Personally, I think the evidence suggests that other factors are more important to turnout than the use or non-use of ranked-choice voting. Turnout was super high all across the country in 2018 and 2020, not just in Maine. (It remains to be seen whether that will carry into the 2021-22 cycle.)

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sarah: It does seem as if ranked-choice voting could especially help in primary elections such as New York’s, where there are multiple candidates on the ballot and voters might not know that much about all the candidates. 

Imagine if the Democratic primary for president in 2020 had been a ranked-choice election … or the Republican primary for president in 2016. 

geoffrey.skelley: Well, a few states did use ranked-choice voting in the 2020 Democratic primary. Voters in Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas and Wyoming cast ranked-choice ballots in their party-run primaries (their states didn’t have state-run primaries available to use), but all of those states finished voting after the nomination race was essentially over in late March, which makes it hard to say just how those rules might have shaped the contest.

nrakich: Yeah, I’m not sure if there’s been any primary-specific research, Sarah, but it stands to reason that ranked-choice voting will be more powerful in races with more than two strong candidates, or multiple candidates who come from the same side of the political spectrum. 

For instance, a far-left candidate, a center-left candidate, and a right candidate. Or a Republican primary with four serious contenders.

But it may also not make a huge difference there either. The Virginia GOP just used ranked-choice voting to pick its governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general candidates for this fall, and the first-round leader wound up being the final winner in all three races. 

sarah: Yeah, it’s interesting considering there are some downsides to ranked-choice voting — or at least mixed evidence on its effectiveness in solving some of our underlying election problems — that so many municipalities and states are trying ranked-choice voting out. Why?

nrakich: Voters seem interested in trying it out! (Maybe because they perceive that the current system isn’t producing great results, given how polarized and dysfunctional our politics is.) Maine, New York City, and Alaska, three of the largest American jurisdictions to adopt ranked-choice voting so far, have all done so via ballot measure in the last few years. (Although Massachusetts also rejected a ballot measure to adopt ranked-choice voting just last year.)

alex: And in Australia, for example, which uses ranked-choice voting prolifically, people seem to really like it. The 2018 election marked the 100th anniversary of ranked-choice voting in its national elections. 

geoffrey.skelley: Motivations for why cities or states have adopted ranked-choice voting may differ, but fundamentally it does seem like an issue if a city or state often elects someone with less than 50 percent of the vote. Such a result makes it harder to say a candidate has the true backing of the electorate. In Maine, for instance, the state had often elected governors with less than 50 percent, which was one reason for the drive to implement ranked-choice voting there. 

nrakich: (Ironically, though, the ranked-choice voting system there doesn’t apply to gubernatorial general elections — just primaries and federal general elections — due to a ruling by the Maine Supreme Court.)

sarah: Logically that makes sense to me, Geoffrey, but it’s interesting how that runs counter to the research Nathaniel cited from Clark finding that ranked-choice voting in Maine “produced significantly lower levels of voter confidence, voter satisfaction, and ease of use.”

It raises the question of whether any voting reform can really solve some of the underlying ills in America’s electoral system.

geoffrey.skelley: Well, the challenge is voters wouldn’t necessarily know they felt that way about ranked-choice voting without first trying it out. And again, as Nathaniel has pointed out, this is a very new thing. 

Let’s see where people are in a decade. Not all voters necessarily liked the secret ballot in the late 19th century (sometimes with very good reason), but we all got pretty used to it.

nrakich: Deep cut.

alex: Sharing Waxman’s piece again where he essentially argues that ranked-choice voting is not the answer to fixing electoral woes.

nrakich: I’m not sure anyone is claiming that ranked-choice voting can fix democracy all on its own. Issues of polarization and divisiveness run deeper than that, right into the hearts of voters themselves. The real question is whether it’s better than a first-past-the-post system.

sarah: Is it, Nathaniel?

nrakich: It does seem like ranked-choice voting has momentum. As I mentioned, several new jurisdictions have adopted it in recent years.

New York City is an important test case, though, because so many political and media elites live there. So a bad experience with ranked-choice voting there could halt that momentum. 

sarah: Is there anything we’ve learned so far in the New York City experiment that helps our understanding of ranked-choice voting moving forward? Do we think more states or cities will move to adopt it?

alex: Eh, I’m less inclined to say yes after the Board of Elections snafu.

nrakich: Yeah, Alex, but it’s important to note that the Board screw-up and the delay in getting results weren’t due to ranked-choice voting per se. And as you’ve mentioned, New Yorkers seem to be satisfied with the actual voting experience.

Maybe it will come down to whether the media covers this post-election turbulence as a side effect of ranked-choice voting or not. Hopefully they won’t, because that’s not fair.

alex: Right, Nathaniel, but I think the error might have repercussions beyond New York — even though the error was Board-specific. Generally speaking, the state of public confidence in elections nationwide right now is at a record low, per Gallup. So when a highly publicized event, like the New York City mayor’s race, takes place and there are serious errors in counting ballots, that can add more anxiety in the public mind about whether elections (or ranked-choice voting) can be trusted or not.

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Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.