How Does NYC’s Ranked-Choice Voting Work?

By Moiz K. Malik

In a typical election, a voter casts their vote for a single candidate. This system is often referred to as First-Past-The-Post voting, because the first candidate to receive the most votes win. In this system a candidate may win without the majority of votes. For example, if three candidates are running in an election and Candidate A receives 40% of votes, Candidate B receives 35% of votes, and Candidate C receives 25% of votes, respectively, Candidate A will win even though the majority of voters did not vote for them.

What is Ranked-Choice Voting?

The goal of Ranked-Choice voting is to ensure that the elected candidate satisfies as many voters as possible. In a Ranked-Choice election, voters cast their vote for their first choice candidate, second choice candidate, third choice candidate, and so on. Each voter ranks their candidates in order of their preference. The candidate to receive the majority of votes wins. This ensures voters elect their most favored candidate, not simply the candidate who they feel pressured or obliged to elect due to external concerns.

How Does Ranked -Choice Voting Work?

After all voter ballots are collected, Ranked-Choice voting begins by eliminating the most unfavored candidate and redistributing their votes until a candidate receives over 50% of votes. If a candidate receives over 50% of votes before any eliminations take place, this means over 50% of voters selected them as their first choice candidate, and they automatically win the election. However, if no candidate receives over 50% of the votes, there will be several elimination rounds until a candidate emerges with the majority of votes.

For example, if three candidates are running in an election and Candidate A receives 40% of votes, Candidate B receives 35% of votes, and Candidate C receives 25% of votes, respectively, no candidate has received over 50% of votes. This means the candidate who received the least amount of votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed, in this case Candidate C is eliminated. If out of the 25% of voters who voted for Candidate C as their first choice candidate, 20% voted for Candidate B as their second choice and 5% voted for Candidate A as their second choice, these votes are transferred to those candidates. This means Candidate A now has 45% of votes and Candidate B now has 55% of votes. Candidate B wins the election.

Is Ranked-Choice Voting Fair?

Many voters are accustomed to casting a single vote for a single candidate, so concerns about fairness and legality are bound to arise with Ranked-Choice voting. The main difference between Ranked-Choice voting and traditional First-Past-The-Post voting is that your vote may be redistributed to other candidates you like if your first choice candidate gets the least votes. You will still only cast one vote, but that vote will go towards the candidates you like the most. In terms of New York City’s new Ranked-Choice voting system, you will be allowed to select your five most preferred candidates.
Many candidates may run in a single election, so it is important to ensure your vote matters. Ranked-Choice voting allows your vote to have more weight and significance, because if your first choice candidate is eliminated, your vote still matters. In 2019 New Yorkers elected to use Ranked-Choice voting in their new ballots. Not only is it a legal and authorized voting system, but it is also fairer to both candidates and voters alike.

What Happens If I Only Want to Vote for One Candidate?

You can rank as many candidates as you would like. For example, if you only like three candidates, you can rank them as your first choice candidate, second choice candidate, and third choice candidate, and leave your other two preferences blank. If you only like one candidate, you can rank them as your first choice candidate and leave your other four preferences blank. However, given the benefits of Ranked-Choice voting, this may not be advisable. If your first choice candidate fails to garner many votes and is eliminated, your vote will not be redistributed if you don’t rank your other preferences.

I’m Concerned About Voting Incorrectly, What Can I Do?

Although Ranked-Choice voting seems complex at first glance, it is actually very straightforward. If you take a look at the example ballots for New York City, you will see that it is formatted simply and clearly. As long as you don’t rank multiple candidates in the same spot, your ballot should be accepted. When in doubt, just read the instructions provided and you will be able to make your selections without voting incorrectly. As an added measure of assurance, if your ballot contains any mistakes a voting machine will not accept it and you will be given another opportunity to cast your vote correctly with a new ballot.
Moving Forward With Ranked-Choice Voting

It is important to understand that you still have all of your rights as a voter, it is still your votes that elect the candidate. This change simply allows you to better voice your preferences and who you would like to see in office. New York City is not the only state to adopt the Ranked-Choice voting system, according to FairVote, 21 jurisdictions used Ranked-Choice voting in recent elections and 52 jurisdictions will be using Ranked-Choice voting in upcoming elections. Ranked-Choice voting has been used across the United States for many years, so although it may take New Yorkers some time to adjust to this system, it will soon prove to be a useful method of fairly deciding elections.