Ranked-Choice Voting Increased Minority Candidates’ Chances



New York City’s first-ever citywide ranked-choice voting election presents a good opportunity to examine a concern raised by RCV opponents: whether the new system hurts racial minorities. Both the New York City experience and recent scholarship make clear that it doesn’t.

RCV is having a moment nationally. More cities and states have embraced it in recent years, with over 75 jurisdictions adopting the reform. It’s used statewide in Maine and Alaska and in dozens of cities across the country.  Virginia Republicans used it to nominate their statewide ticket this year, and four state Democratic parties used it for their presidential primaries last year.

Under RCV, voters get to rank their candidate preferences – first, second, third, and so on. Under the most common form of RCV, used for elections for a single office, election officials check to see if any candidate has a majority of first-place choices. If so, they win, as in any election. If not, the candidate with the fewest first-place choices is eliminated, with the votes for that candidate reallocated among the remaining candidates based on those ballots’ second-place choices. This process of elimination and reallocation continues until one candidate has a majority of votes and is elected.

RCV eliminates the “spoiler” problem in plurality, or “first past the post” elections, as well as the need for costly, often low-turnout runoff elections if no candidate gets a majority. Since voters no longer have to worry about “throwing away their vote” on a perceived longshot candidate, RCV levels the playing field and provides opportunities for lesser-known, lesser-funded candidates, including third-party candidates. Studies have also shown that it reduces negative campaigning and increases civility, because candidates have to appeal not only to their own bases but also to their opponents’ bases, in a bid to get second- or third-place votes.

Although RCV is a nonpartisan reform that has been endorsed by the likes of John McCain and Barack Obama and used both in blue states such as California and red states such as Utah, when resistance comes, it often comes from the right. Top national GOP officials, among them House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Tom Cotton, have derided the system as “woke” and a “scam,” while right-wing think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation, publish articles opposing it.

But a longstanding, albeit quieter, strain of criticism comes from the left: namely, that RCV will hurt minority voter empowerment. According to this view, by making voting more complicated, RCV will disproportionately discourage turnout among voters of color. Those minority voters who do turn out will not rank their choices as effectively, this thinking goes, further shifting power away from them.

We saw such skepticism in the run-up to the recent New York City Democratic primary election for city offices (which, in deep blue New York, is a decisive election round). Black candidate Eric Adams, the eventual mayoral primary winner, made the “depressed turnout” argument. City Council incumbents from the black, Latino and Asian Caucus unsuccessfully sued to block RCV’s implementation and tried to legislate a delay. Both the New York NAACP (before the election) and the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network (after the election) expressed opposition.

New York City’s experience seems to have disproved these concerns. Turnout in the mayoral primary was the highest in over 30 years, a 30% increase from the prior election, with record participation in down-ballot races for comptroller and public advocate. Barring exceedingly unlikely upsets in the general election, the recent primary resulted in the second black mayor in the city’s history. The City Council will be the most racially and ethnically diverse one ever, with minority representatives increasing from 53% to 64% of the body. Other historic firsts for the City Council include the first-ever council member of South Asian descent, the first Muslim, and the first openly gay black woman. The number of women will likely more than double from 14 to 29, including 26 women of color.

Nor did New York voters seem confused by RCV. Exit polling by the nonprofits Common Cause and Rank the Vote New York City showed that 83% of voters ranked at least two candidates, and 72% ranked three or more, proving that voters understood the system. About 95% of voters surveyed found the ballot “simple to complete,” a finding that held across ethnic groups, and about 78% said that they wanted to continue with RCV in the future. And this was only the inaugural use of RCV: Voter comprehension and comfort with RCV improves over time as voters get more practice.

White New York voters overall ranked three or more candidates at a higher rate than black and Hispanic voters (80% versus 66% & 64%, respectively), but this gap is no larger than the racial disparities in turnout one sees when voters are forced to come back for a second, separate runoff election – a system New York used prior to its adoption of RCV. The gap may partially be explained by high black and Latino support for frontrunner Eric Adams: When voters rank the perceived frontrunner first, they tend to rank less frequently. At any rate, the proof’s in the pudding, with record levels of success by candidates of color.

New York’s experience is consistent with recent studies looking at RCV elections across the country. Various studies, reports, and academic papers in recent years show that minority candidates and women won elections at an increased rate after their jurisdictions adopted RCV. The effect is not universal, but in any case the studies do not show significant harm to minority electoral chances.

There’s some reason to believe that this is tied to the RCV dynamics themselves, rather than to happenstance. A 2021 study by the (pro-RCV) organization FairVote concluded that minority candidates benefited from the multiple rounds of counting more than white candidates did, and that minority voters chose to rank their votes (as opposed to just listing a single candidate preference) at a higher rate, too. The overall win rate for white candidates was still the highest of any single racial group – the United States is a majority-white country, after all – but the RCV dynamic seems to promote diversity, at least marginally.

These results should not be surprising. By eliminating the “don’t throw away your vote on an unknown” dynamic, RCV tends to assist outsider, non-establishment candidates – not always enough for them to win, but enough to get them in the game. In New York, it did that and more.

Steven Mulroy is a University of Memphis law professor, a former Voting Section lawyer for the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and the author of “Rethinking U.S. Election Law: Unskewing the System.”





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