In the End, There Can Be Only One

Fun With Ranked-Choice Voting

Sean Connery and Christopher Lambert in Highlander (Credit: Columbia-Cannon-Warner)


The aim of every democratic system is to select leaders who have popular support and are therefore viewed as legitimate authorities. But every such system can generate outcomes very much at odds with the apparent tenor of public opinion. While some systems are simply poorly designed, even well-designed systems will go “wrong” in certain circumstances; it’s just that the circumstances in which they will fail will vary between different systems.

For example: a legislature can be elected via proportional representation or the first-past-the-post Westminster system. The latter can result in minority rule, if a minority is optimally dispersed while the majority is concentrated in a smaller number of constituencies. That’s the case in the United States House of Representatives, and to a lesser extent would likely continue to be even without the distortions of gerrymandering, and it’s also why Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour did so astonishingly badly in the last UK elections even relative to their anemic vote totals.

But proportional representation can also result in strange outcomes. They will do a better job of making sure that every ideological group of a certain size or larger will be represented, but threshold effects can profoundly shape the outcome in close elections depending on which parties squeak over the line to representations, and because coalitions are only formed after the election, multi-party proportional rep systems can result in voters for a given party waking up to discover their party is backing their less-favored candidate for Prime Minister. Both phenomena can be observed regularly in Israel, including in the most recent election.

Systems where a strong executive is elected directly pose their own distinct challenges. If you don’t have a runoff, then a candidate with plurality support who is opposed by the majority can win. If you do have a runoff, then in a close election threshold effects can again have a powerful influence on the outcome. For example, in the last French presidential election the second-through-fourth candidates earned very similar shares of the vote. Less than 2% separated the second-place Marine Le Pen and fourth-place Jean-Luc Mélanchon, and even the eventual winner, Emmanuel Macron, did not place that far ahead of any of his major rivals. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where small differences in the first-round vote resulted in a different pair in the runoff, and a wildly different ultimate outcome.

I’m thinking about this because my hometown, New York City, is holding a fairly important mayoral election this year, an election that will almost certainly be decided in the Democratic primary, and we’re using a new system: ranked choice voting. And I’m wondering how much the choice of that system is going to affect the final outcome.

Based on the most recent polls, the top choice for mayor is “undecided.” The leading actual candidate, Andrew Yang, polls somewhere between 16% and 25%, with his closest rival, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, polling somewhere in the low teens. My own preferred candidate, former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, is polling in the low single digits, so unless the dynamics of the race change dramatically it’s likely that my first-round choice won’t matter much. But small differences in the rank order of my and my fellow voters’ subsequent preferences could prove weirdly decisive.

Suppose, for example, that there were three candidates, A, B and C. All three candidates have fairly similar levels of first-round support, but very different levels of second-round support. Voters for candidate A tend to prefer C as their second choice. Voters for candidate B also tend to prefer C as their second choice. Meanwhile, supporters of candidates A and B really despise each other, and will be very upset if their opponent wins, while the enthusiastic backers of candidate C are pretty unimpressed with either A or B.

C, then, would seem to be the consensus candidate favored by the electorate. And, indeed, if the first round results are any of the following, then, candidate C will win:

C-A-B
C-B-A
A-C-B
B-C-A

But candidates A and B turn out to have somewhat larger bases of support, in part because they believe they always have their second-choice vote for candidate C to fall back on to assure they wind up with someone they can stand. So the first-round result is A-B-C, and whoever winds up winning the lukewarm support of candidate C’s second-choice votes will be elected, without anything resembling strong popular backing.

Could that happen in the NYC mayoral race? I think it could.

Right now the top candidate after Andrew Yang and Eric Adams is Maya D. Wiley, a former MSNBC analyst and ex-counsel to the deeply unpopular mayor, Bill de Blasio. She has a lot of support from progressive activists, and is opposed by the business community and more moderate voters. Many of those voters are supporting Andrew Yang, who has actively claimed the moderate mantle and also has the buzz of being a celebrity candidate who stands for new ideas — but many of them are probably supporting other candidates, or are undecided. What happens if the race becomes progressively more polarized, and opposition to Yang mounts without dislodging him from the top spot?

I’m not sure. It’s possible that Wiley’s support is capped because not enough people really care what progressive activists think. But I could also imagine a situation where polarization leads a host of other candidates who might be palatable to a wide swathe of the electorate — Adams, Garcia, comptroller Scott Stringer, former Citigroup executive Raymond J. McGuire, former federal housing secretary Shaun Donovan — to fall by the wayside, with second-choice votes going predominantly either to Wiley or Yang. Of course, it’s also easy to imagine a more consensus figure like Adams emerging as the predominant second choice of these voters, and winding up denying Yang the mayoralty that now appears to be within his grasp. And of course it’s easiest of all to imagine Yang being the predominant second-choice vote simply by virtue of being the best-known candidate in the field, and/or benefitting from polarization precisely because of his independence from the activist class. The point is: the race is likely to be decided by those second- or third-choice votes. And how do you campaign for those anyway while still getting enough first-choice votes to be in a position to benefit from other candidates’ voters second and third choices?

I have very mixed feelings about Yang. I’m deeply concerned about his inexperience and his enthusiasm for wacky ideas (to be fair: some of which are good!) while also very much appreciating his independence. The next mayor is going to have to restore post-pandemic support for the public schools and post-George Floyd relations with the NYPD. They’re going to have to sell the city all over again to tourists and business, and manage the city financially through a period when, even in a booming economy, commercial real estate may be underwater for an extended period. They’re going to have to work with Albany to rebuild the MTA. They have to tackle rising crime and rising homelessness. It’s a gargantuan task — and it’s encouraging, actually, that so many people want to take it on.

I just hope we pick the right one.