WHATEVER THEIR political views, policy priorities or base of support, candidates seeking office tend to campaign on the same fundamental message: vote for me, not for anybody else. In New York, where Democrats will select their mayoral candidate tomorrow, some candidates have taken a slightly different approach. Last weekend, Kathryn Garcia and Andrew Yang—running second and fourth in the 13-candidate field, according to a recent Marist Poll—campaigned together in Flushing, Queens, a heavily Asian-American stronghold for Mr Yang, and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, favourable territory for Ms Garcia. Mr Yang called Ms Garcia “a true public servant,” and urged the crowd: “If you support me, you should rank Kathryn number two on your ballot.” (Ms Garcia did not reciprocate the endorsement.)
In form and substance, Mr Yang’s plea highlighted the unusual nature of this election—perhaps the highest-profile one yet to use ranked-choice voting (RCV), an electoral system much beloved by psephologists. In RCV elections, voters rank their choices from one to five. First-choice votes are tallied first. If no candidate gets a majority, then the candidate with the least support is dropped from the ballot, and top-choice votes for them are reallocated to their voters’ second choices. If there is still no majority, the candidate with the least support is again dropped; this continues until one candidate has more than half the total vote. Multiple rounds of counting make RCV elections difficult to predict (as, in this case, does the large share of voters, around 13%, who are undecided); a winner may not be announced for weeks. But it is already clear that after eight years of Bill de Blasio’s bumbling progressivism, New York’s Democrats appear poised to elect a moderate.
Leading the polls, but not by much, is Eric Adams (pictured), a retired African-American police officer currently serving as Brooklyn’s borough president. Public safety figures heavily in his campaign, and also in voters’ minds: although the city is far safer than it was in the 1990s, homicides have spiked over the past year, as they have in the rest of the country, and New Yorkers list crime as one of their three biggest concerns (along with covid-19 and the economy) in this election. Mr Adams argues both for more police, particularly more non-white officers, and for police reform (the police captains’ union, of which Mr Adams was once a member, has endorsed Mr Yang). Mr Adams has strong African-American support, as well as endorsements from David Paterson, New York’s first African-American governor, and Adriano Espaillat, a congressman whose support carries tremendous weight in the Latino neighbourhoods he represents in upper Manhattan and the Bronx.
The other leading African-American candidate is Maya Wiley, a staunch progressive running third, between Mr Yang, a famous but untested former presidential candidate, and Ms Garcia, who headed the city’s sanitation department and has been endorsed by multiple labour unions as well as the city’s two leading liberal newspapers, the New York Times and the Daily News. Ms Wiley has benefited from the struggles of the other leading progressives; two women have accused Scott Stringer, the city’s comptroller, of sexual misconduct (he denies the allegations), while the campaign of Dianne Morales, an executive at a nonprofit, has imploded over labour disputes among her campaign staff. Ms Wiley is a civil-rights lawyer who worked for Mr de Blasio; she is running on a broadly reformist platform, and appears to be gaining support as the campaign draws to a close.
For the rest of America, the most important part of this election is not who wins, but how RCV performs. Proponents say that it reduces negative campaigning, encourages moderation, opens races to a more diverse slate of candidates, and offers voters greater choice. Because candidates must command a majority, not just a plurality, they have to find broader appeal. And, because third-party votes do not automatically constitute spoilers, outsiders get a fairer shake.
RCV has not been widely used enough to provide a conclusive test of these hopes. San Francisco has used the system since 2002, but Rafael Mandelman, who sits on the city’s Board of Supervisors, says it has worked in unexpected ways. He cites as an example the 2019 race for District Attorney, in which Chesa Boudin garnered only 35% in a first round against three considerably more moderate candidates, but ended up winning the election. Mr Mandelman finds this outcome strange. Mr Boudin now faces a recall campaign. “He’s doing exactly what he said he would do,” says Mr Mandelman. “And the voters are furious.”
Such oddities arise because RCV, like all electoral systems, is sensitive to details of implementation. Australia, which has used the system for more than a century, requires voters to rank all candidates on the ballot. If complete rankings are optional, as in San Francisco, the ultimate tally will not account for the desires of voters who failed to rank one of the final two candidates, resulting in so-called “exhausted ballots.” Mr Boudin squeaked into office with a margin of only 3,000 votes. More than six times as many ballots were exhausted.
Observers looking for evidence elsewhere are more optimistic. Lee Drutman, a political scientist and author of a book advocating RCV, suggests that Australia has notably moderate politics. Mike Winder, a legislator in Utah who has spearheaded efforts to implement RCV there, says that it resulted in a more civil Republican gubernatorial primary in 2020. He is eager to see it deployed nationwide.
Would RCV for national elections fix American politics? Jack Santucci, a political scientist at Drexel University, says that activists are too sanguine. Many of the stated goals of RCV advocates, he says, could be accomplished at the national level by a transition to proportional representation with multi-member districts. Others agree. Even Mr Drutman, a ranked-choice cheerleader, thinks that, without proportional representation, American politics will remain deeply polarised.
As a reform, RCV has one vital advantage over proportional representation: it is comparatively easy to implement. It can also be tested fairly easily at the level of local elections like New York’s. Instituting proportional representation would constitute a complete overhaul of America’s electoral system. Does it have a chance? “Forgive me for laughing, but that’s ridiculous,” says Michael Munger, political scientist at Duke University. “Might as well say everyone has jetpacks to get ‘em to the polls.”