Another Way to Vote: Instant Runoff Voting in New York City Elections

You may have heard of instant runoff voting (or ranked choice voting, as it’s sometimes called) before, but what you might not know is that our city government is considering adopting this method of voting.

The 2019 Charter Revision Commission (CRC) has a mandate to review the City Charter and will soon be provide recommendations to the public for how we can improve the Charter this November. As the CRC prepares its preliminary report, which is set to be released next Monday, April 22nd, members are taking the benefits of instant runoff voting (IRV) into consideration. So let’s get into it!

What is IRV?

Currently, New York State Election Law states that if no citywide candidate receives 40 percent of the vote or more in a primary election, the city will conduct a runoff primary between the two candidates who received the greatest number of votes in the primary. For example, you might recall that back in 2013, we had a runoff election for the office of public advocate between Letitia James and Daniel Squadron. That election cost an estimated $13 million to administer, but just over 200,000 New Yorkers, or 6.9 percent of eligible voters, cast a ballot in this run-off election.

With instant runoff voting, voters rank their candidates in order of preference, rather than only voting for one candidate. The candidate who earns more than half of the voters’ first choice wins, and if none of the candidates have met this threshold, the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated. Voters who have selected that candidate will then have their votes transferred over to their next choice, and this process continues until one candidate has received a majority. By asking voters to rank their choices, IRV eliminates the possibility of having to resort to a second election, which as we saw in 2013, is often costly and cumbersome.

What are the benefits of instant runoff voting?

One of the most commonly cited advantages of IRV is that it reduces the possibility that a candidate who is opposed by the majority of voters might win an election, since requiring voters to express preference for more than one candidate ensures that elections are more reflective of voter opinion across the electorate. This reduces the need for strategic voting, which is a form of voting in which the voter does not vote for their preferred candidate in order to block their least favored option from being elected. IRV can also make elections more competitive by creating a viable challenge for otherwise “safe” incumbents, who may not be the first choice of voters.

Our current runoff election system can contribute to voter fatigue, which occurs when voters are required to vote too often due to multiple elections in a single year. Studies show that Western countries with a high number of elections per year, such as the United States and Switzerland, have consistently low voter turnout, and many political scientists attribute this behavior directly to voter fatigue. This is especially prevalent in the United States, where voters are often required to take time out of their work days to go vote. While there is little data on whether IRV increases voter turnout on its own, one study shows that, in comparison to the traditional primary and runoff elections, IRV general elections are associated with a 10 point increase in voter turnout.

What's next?

We’ll keep you updated once the CRC releases its report of recommendations. In the meantime, want to learn more about IRV and how it works? Check out RCV: NYC, a new campaign from Common Cause/NY about why ranked choice voting matters for NYC’s voters!

What do you think of instant runoff voting? Do you think New York City should adopt this method of voting? Tell us in the comments below!

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