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What You Need to Know About Ranked-Choice Voting

With voting underway for New York City’s primary elections, the city is implementing a new system for people to vote: ranked-choice voting. 

The transition comes after New York City’s electorate overwhelmingly supported a ranked-choice voting system, passing the initiative with 73.5% support on a 2019 ballot measure. According to the city’s board of elections, more than 191,000 voters have made their way to the polls since early voting opened last Saturday, and more are expected to vote on Election Day, yet many may still be confused about how ranked-choice voting works.

Here’s what New York City voters need to know about the new voting system.

What is ranked-choice voting?

Ranked-choice voting is a new voting system being implemented for local elections in New York City. Rather than only being able to cast your vote for one candidate, RCV allows you to rank up to five candidates on your ballot in order of preference. The system still follows the traditional one-person, one-vote principle – but with RCV, you are now able to throw your support behind multiple candidates.

How will the elections be called?

Votes will be tallied using a computer-programmed algorithm. In the beginning, only first-choice votes will be counted. A candidate must receive a minimum 50% of first-choice votes in order to win the primary election.

If no candidate receives at least 50% of first-choice votes, the counting of votes will continue in rounds. In each round, the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated from the competition, and their votes are then given to their voters’ second-choice candidate. The process of eliminating candidates and reassigning votes continues until there are only two candidates remaining. 

The candidate with the most votes wins the election.

What elections will be determined by ranked-choice voting?

Starting this year, RCV is being used in both primary and special elections for local offices. There are five main offices up for grabs this month: mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough president and city council. RCV will not be used in the city’s general election scheduled for this November, or in elections for county, state or federal offices, like the president — for that, you can still only support one candidate. 

How do I fill out my ballot?

Upon receiving your ballot, you will see five columns – one column for a first-, second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-choice vote. For your first-choice candidate, fill in the oval next to their name in the first column. If you have a second-choice candidate you want to vote for, fill in the oval next to their name in the second column. Proceed to rank up to five candidates by filling in the oval in the column that represents their ranking in order of preference.

Am I allowed to vote for just one candidate?

Yes, you can still vote for only one candidate with RCV. Ranking more than one candidate, however, does not impact your first choice. Your other rankings will only be considered if no candidate receives the minimum 50% threshold of first-choice votes to win the primary after the first round of counting.

Can I give different candidates the same ranking?

Under RCV, you cannot give different candidates the same ranking – doing so will invalidate your ballot, and you will have to redo it.

Similarly, you also cannot rank a candidate more than once. This includes ranking someone as your first-, second- and third-choice candidates. In this case, only your first-choice ranking will be counted – there is no advantage in giving your favorite candidate every ranking. 

Am I allowed to write in a candidate?

You are allowed to write in a candidate who is not listed on this month’s primary. On the “Write-in” line of your ballot, write in their name, and then fill in the oval next to their name in the column that corresponds to your ranking of them.

What are the benefits of ranked-choice voting?

With RCV, undecided voters do not have to cast their vote for just one candidate. In past elections, people may have been conflicted about having to choose one candidate over another. Wth RCV, voters are allowed to throw their support behind multiple candidates.

The new voting system also allows candidates to still be in competition with others even if the polls are not in their favor. Just because a candidate may be leading in first-choice votes doesn’t mean they’ll win; for that, they must receive at least 50% of first-choice votes by the end of the initial counting.

Candidates therefore are not only campaigning to be people’s first-choice vote – they are also campaigning to be their second-, third-, fourth- or fifth-choice vote if they are not the top pick. Some scholars believe that RCV will therefore favor moderate candidates over radicals. 

“Even in an electorate where there is a wide diversity of viewpoints, the winner will be a candidate who can hit that middle ground,” said Ben Reilly, a professor of social sciences from Australia, to the New York Times.

RCV also saves the city from having to hold a runoff election, an election that takes place after the initial election if no candidate gets enough votes to win. Runoffs take both time and money, and by then, many people may not want to vote a second time, leading to a lower voter turnout. 

Everyone who votes in this month’s primary is also voting in case no candidate receives at least 50% of first-choice votes to win. Therefore, the rounds of counting put in place if no candidates meet the 50% threshold inherently function as an instant runoff election.

What are people’s concerns about using ranked-choice voting?

Because New York City has never used RCV until now, voters may be confused about how the new voting system works. People may not have the necessary resources to educate themselves in time before the elections. 

Some election officials have expressed concern that the lack of awareness surrounding RCV may disenfranchise voters, particularly people of color, from participating in a voting system they are not used to, ultimately leading to a lower voter turnout.

When should we expect to know election results?

Even with a computer-generated software counting the votes, knowing the official winners of this month’s primary elections will take time. Especially in primaries like the city’s mayoral race, where there are many candidates, it is likely that no candidate will receive at least 50% of first-choice votes, which will send the election into an instant runoff. 

Although unofficial results released Tuesday night may give voters a general idea of where races stand, absentee, affidavit and military ballots will not be accounted for by then. Knowing who actually won therefore may take a couple of weeks, possibly until mid-July


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