On Tuesday, June 22, voters in New York City participated in a historic primary election. This primary election is the first in the city’s history, and the largest city in the nation, to implement ranked choice voting.
Instead of simply casting one vote for a single candidate in the crowded field of 13 Democrats and two Republicans, voters were able to rank up to five candidates in the order of their preference.
In layman’s terms, voters are given a list of candidates in the same manner as the existing system. Then, voters assign a ranking to however many, or however few, candidates they prefer, or are allowed.
When the votes are being counted, candidates receive only the votes from the ballots in which they are ranked the highest. Until this point, ranked choice is almost identical to the existing system; the advantage comes in the next part.
When the ballots are fully tabulated, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated, and their votes are redistributed to the next person on each ballot. This process continues until one candidate receives over 50% of the vote or until there is only one candidate left.
There are several advantages to implementing ranked choice voting over the current first-past-the-post, or plurality system. The most significant advantage is that it eliminates the negative impact of “spoilers” in an election.
Spoilers are third-party candidates who pull votes from one of the main parties, and, in effect, split the vote, causing that candidate to lose.
A good example of a “spoiled” election is the 1992 presidential election where Ross Perot won 18% of the vote — the highest of any third-party candidate in U.S. history. However, he failed to win any states and caused George H.W. Bush to lose to Bill Clinton, despite Bill Clinton receiving only 43% of the vote.
Another recent example is the 2000 election, where Ralph Nader won 1.6% of the vote in Florida and narrowly cost Al Gore the state and the overall election.
Similar events have happened in previous presidential elections, including the 1912 election, the 1968 election, the 2016 election and the 2020 election, with third parties splitting the vote and costing one of the candidates the election.
Because of this spoiler effect, many Americans are reluctant to cast their vote for a third party because it would be a wasted vote and may harm one of the two main parties. Because of this, and despite 62% of Americans wanting an alternative to the two-party system, third parties cannot gain enough traction to attract donors or candidates and will continue to languish in the fringes of the American political system.
Additionally, third parties are not the only ones who benefit from this system. For example, multiple candidates from the same party can run without fear of splitting their party’s vote, allowing them to better represent the different wings of their party.
Furthermore, in the elections where ranked choice voting has been implemented, observers have noted that attack ads have dramatically decreased by as much as 80%. This has made elections far cheaper — since attack ads account for the bulk of campaign spending — and far more civil, keeping the ads focused on the issues, not the candidates.
The main reason for this is that because ballots are more complex, launching an unwarranted attack on one of your rivals is risky, as attack ads may alienate potential voters who would otherwise be willing to rank that attacking candidate as well.
Over the past several years, several states, cities and municipalities have opted to embrace this method of voting, often spearheaded by non-partisan groups. In 2016, Maine became the first state to implement ranked choice statewide in both federal and local elections and was joined by Alaska in 2020.
In May 2021, voters in Austin, Texas, voted to approved ranked choice, and joined 13 other cities that have already approved the measure, including several California cities such as Berkley, Oakland, San Francisco and notably Palm Desert.
Palm Desert is especially interesting. The city of Palm Desert was accused of violating the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 because its at-large City Council elections were alleged to have unfairly diluted the votes of Latino residents.
This lawsuit is nearly identical to one that has been filed against the city of Santa Clarita and would have resulted in the replacement of the at-large elections with City Council districts, which could be susceptible to gerrymandering and increasing partisanship.
However, the city of Palm Desert managed to avoid this by settling the lawsuit and keeping their at-large elections by instead implementing ranked choice voting. As Santa Clarita faces similar legal issues, this may be an attractive alternative to consider.
All these advantages have made ranked choice voting an appealing alternative to the existing system, and I believe implementing ranked choice would solve many of the problems that our country, our state and our city currently face.
By stepping away from high-stakes, polarizing, vicious, expensive and increasingly partisan elections, we can allow more moderate and nuanced viewpoints to be considered, and, hopefully, succeed.
Kevin de Bree is a software engineer who resides in Valencia