What NYC Will Teach Us About Ranked-Choice Voting

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What NYC Will Teach Us About Ranked-Choice Voting

As Election Day approaches in New York City’s mayoral primaries, former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang are campaigning together (though, while Yang encouraged his supporters to also cast a ranked-choice vote for Garcia, she did not reciprocate); former Wall Street executive Ray McGuire explored a similar alliance with Garcia, then backed off; former mayoral counsel Maya Wiley claims to have snubbed an offer to join Garcia and Yang on the trail (though Garcia and Yang deny it); and the polling leader, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, is shunning all alliances and gleefully attacking most everyone else.

Welcome to the world of ranked-choice voting.

For the first time in the city, RCV will be used to determine the winner of its municipal elections. In fact, this is the biggest jurisdiction ever in America to use RCV. If it can make it there, it can make it anywhere. But it has to make it there first.

If you are not yet familiar, this is how RCV works. Voters rank candidates in order of preference (in New York City’s system, voters can rank up to five candidates.) After the first round of counting, the candidate with the least amount of first-choice votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate first have their votes redistributed using their second-choice. This elimination and redistribution process continues until one candidate has a majority.

RCV advocates argue this produces a result that best reflects the desire of the electorate. A plurality candidate may not win if that person is too disliked by the majority. A costly runoff election is not needed to determine which of the top two candidates has the broadest support.

The group FairVote further argues that “RCV encourages more civil discourse between candidates because candidates campaign not only for first-choice support, but also the second-choice support of other candidates. … Candidates have less incentive to make negative statements about their opponents because they risk alienating that opponent’s supporters.”

Whether or not RCV produces the fairest result is something New Yorkers will have to assess after the election. But we can assess how RCV is impacting the campaign. And we don’t see more civility. We see more Machiavellian machinations.

Unless a candidate can win an outright majority in the first round of RCV counting, he or she needs a strategy for winning second-choice and third-choice votes from the ranks of rivals. However, the candidate who leads after the first round almost always wins in the end: 96.2% of the time, to be exact, in RCV races since 2004. That can prompt trailing candidates to get creative.

Perhaps the most impressive RCV victory was executed by Jean Quan in the 2010 Oakland mayoral race. She trailed by about 11,000 votes after the first round but ended up winning by about 2,000.

As The New York Times reported at the time, Quan “singled out [Don] Perata, a conservative Democrat who had outspent everyone, and aligned herself with the other nine candidates, particularly the other major challenger, Rebecca Kaplan. She came to be seen as the leader of the ‘anybody but Don’ coalition. … ‘We talked to everybody, and if you had a sign for Joe Tuman or Rebecca Kaplan or Don Perata, we wanted their No. 2’ or to convince them to switch, said Ms. Quan.”

But striving to be the strongest second-choice performer can get you tangled up with all the other candidates trying to do the same thing. One way to try to manage that problem is by forging alliances. This almost worked in San Francisco’s 2018 special mayoral election.

Progressives viewed acting Mayor London Breed as a moderate who was too cozy with the business community, but were split largely between two area legislators, Jane Kim and Mark Leno. So Kim and Leno joined forces and encouraged their supporters to rank the other candidate second. They even cut a joint ad. In the first round, the votes for Kim and Leno combined amounted to about 30,000 more than for Breed, though Breed had the most first-place votes. Leno outpaced Kim, and ended up getting about two-thirds of her votes. That left him about 2,500 votes short, making Breed the winner. Nevertheless, without the alliance with Kim, Leno wouldn’t have gotten so close.

Those examples help explain the thinking behind Garcia and Yang’s joint campaign appearance on Saturday, but not completely. The Garcia-Yang partnership looks a lot more awkward than the Kim-Leno alliance. 

On Saturday, while the two were standing next to each other in front of their supporters and reporters, Yang announced he would rank Garcia as his second choice, but Garcia said, “Let me be very clear, I’m not co-endorsing” and “I wouldn’t be in this race if I had a solid number two” choice.

Leno and Kim were both progressive legislators trying to beat a relative moderate. Their alliance had a natural logic. Garcia and Yang are both considered moderate because they eschew the progressive push to cut the police budget. But Garcia is an experienced municipal government official who promises solid management, while Yang is a neophyte with out-of-the-box ideas like universal basic income (though in the mayor’s race he is proposing a basic income pilot project).

Several weeks ago, Garcia criticized both Yang and Adams for suggesting they would hire her, calling the backhanded compliment “totally sexist.” “Are you not strong enough to actually do this job, without me helping you?” said Garcia to The New Yorker. With Garcia appealing to voters who appreciate experience, it’s not easy  to convince her supporters to rank right behind her the least experienced candidate.

Garcia appears to be emulating Quan’s strategy to attract as many second-choice votes as she can — without equally elevating any other candidates in the process. Polls indicate the strongest support for Garcia comes from white voters, particularly in Manhattan, while Yang does best with Latinos. However, neither is strong with African Americans, making a full-blown alliance between the two of them of limited value. The New York Times reported Garcia also tried to strike a deal with Raymond McGuire (and possibly Wiley) in hopes of making inroads with black voters who, to date, have been primarily supporting Adams.  But her inability to create those alliances will likely make it harder for her to replicate Quan’s success.

Garcia and Yang may both suffer from their machinations, because they look so much like machinations. Leno and Kim had a principled alliance based on shared values. Voters who also shared those values were receptive to their pitch. But there is no principled basis for the Garcia-Yang partnership; all Garcia could muster is that they are “promoting ranked-choice voting” together, which is like saying by going to a restaurant one is promoting eating. It’s plain to see they are straining to team up solely to stop the frontrunner, which looks like an act of self-interest, not public interest. It’s a crudely political act for two candidates who have sought to style themselves as above crude politics.

Adams doesn’t appear to have this problem. He has reveled in launching campaign attacks at everyone nipping at his heels, making a mockery of the notion that RCV encourages civility. “We don’t need a college professor. We need a professional who knows how to keep this city safe,” Adams said of Wiley. “You can’t say that you’re a good manager if you’re going to manage inequities, if you’re going to manage a dysfunctional city,” said Adams of Garcia, in response to charges of discrimination during her time as sanitation commissioner. “He’s a joke and it’s not funny anymore,” said Adams of Yang. Of the Garcia-Yang partnership, Adams did not hesitate to accuse them of conspiring to prevent an African-American or Latino candidate from winning. Yet Adams is leading in every poll, scooping up enough secondary support from the backers of the candidates he lambastes.

If Adams does stumble at the end, it would likely be because he alienated too many supporters of the other candidates. But he appears to be winning not because he is navigating the ranked-choice voting system, but is instead steamrolling over it.

He began the race with a decent base of support among African Americans, especially in populous Brooklyn where he has won several elections already (most of Adams’ opponents have never been on a municipal election ballot, or any ballot at all). So he could more easily engage in political confrontations to elevate his profile without sacrificing his initial base. And winning begets winning. Adams may get enough second-choice and third-choice support to win because polls suggest he is winning, and is creating media coverage that says he’s winning, which makes the other candidates look like losers. Remember, in ranked-choice voting, the first round winner is almost always the final round winner.

Still, if Adams — arguably the most conservative Democrat in the race — were a poor ideological fit for New York City, ranked-choice voting should solve that problem. Garcia and Yang aren’t pounding Adams from the left, but Wiley is.

Yang has been unloading on Adams, but by calling him corrupt and phony. He pushed allegations that Adams primarily resides in New Jersey, saying to a New York magazine reporter, “Eric Adams two debates ago said what he couldn’t do without was a bubble bath. When he gave reporters a tour of the [Brooklyn] basement he supposedly lives in, there is no bathtub in the basement. So, I just want people to notice there’s no bathtub.” But Wiley’s criticisms have been more ideological, especially in regards to policing tactics; recently she said, “What differentiates me most from Eric Adams is that I have a plan to not go backwards to broken things that didn’t work like stop and frisk.”

Having received the endorsement of most of the city’s prominent progressives, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Wiley should be able to scoop up secondary support from the progressive candidates in the second tier, and maximize that share of the vote. Yet it may be that even in New York City, and even among New York City Democrats, there aren’t enough hard-core progressives to make a majority. 

Ranked-choice voting has proven useful to sort out ideologically distinct candidates, and prevent candidates who are out of step with their electorates from winning with pluralities. But in a race like New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary, where some ideological lines are blurry, the correct strategic decision can be harder to detect, leading to clunky maneuvers in the campaign’s final days.

Ranked-choice voting hasn’t made the New York City mayoral race more civil, only more strategically complicated. But for any lover of political theater, that may be a plus.

Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ,” and host of the podcast “New Books in Politics.” He can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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