New York's 'head-swirling' mistake puts harsh spotlight on ranked-choice voting

2
.cms-textAlign-left{text-align:left;}.cms-textAlign-center{text-align:center;}.cms-textAlign-right{text-align:right;}.cms-magazineStyles-smallCaps{font-variant:small-caps;}

Ranked-choice voting was having a moment. Then came New York City’s mayoral election debacle.

Even though last week’s fumble by the city Board of Elections — in which it released incorrect vote tallies before fixing the totals 24 hours later — was not specifically related to the ranked-choice system, the complex way of choosing candidates is drawing new scrutiny as New Yorkers are going on two weeks waiting to learn the identity of the city’s likely next mayor.

Advocates of ranked-choice voting are desperate to maintain their momentum: Within the past decade, ranked-choice voting has expanded from a mostly overseas phenomenon to the system under which the mayor of the nation’s largest city, and senators and members of Congress from two states, are now elected.

And more change is on the way, they say, so long as last week’s snafu doesn’t sour potential converts to the reform cause.

“My concern is that New York's experience will give ranked-choice voting a black eye,” Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, said.

Despite New York’s struggles, elections officials and practiced ranked-choice voting experts say they’re still confident in the system. The source of last week’s faux pas — forgetting to erase test ballots from the system — could have happened in a conventional election, they insist.

“It’s obviously super frustrating that they did this, and kind of just head-swirling,” said Rob Richie, a co-founder and president of FairVote, a nonprofit that has been pushing for more cities and states to adopt ranked choice voting for decades. “It's just like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Are you kidding me?’ Because it's such a rookie mistake, right? It's because you can do this with any kind of election.”

More than a dozen ranked-choice voting advocates POLITICO spoke to emphasized that New York’s problems are in no way emblematic of what could happen should their city, state or county adopt the practice.

“It's difficult to compare ourselves to New York,” said Julie Fullmer, mayor of Vineyard, Utah, which is one of nearly two dozen cities in the state to use ranked-choice voting. “We're a different state. We've got different people running it. We have different processes and different laws about how we do our elections.”

Sherrie Swensen, the longtime Democratic clerk of Salt Lake County, Utah, shared similar sentiments. Her office will help about 10 additional jurisdictions in her county run ranked-choice elections this year for local offices through a pilot program in the state for ranked choice voting.

She said that while the situation in New York didn’t concern her — she, like many others, noted that not clearing test ballots wasn’t a problem specific to the system — she does have other concerns about cities running ranked-choice elections for the first time, from voter education to potentially “putting jurisdictions in a more litigious situation.”

Municipalities have to “make sure that people understand how to complete their ballot and do it in a way that is going to be counted, and make sure that if they make a mistake, they know how to change that,” Swensen said.

New York City’s Board of Elections, which is composed of politically appointed commissioners rather than experienced election officials, is perhaps the biggest dividing factor between its election oversight and that of other jurisdictions. It is also the biggest source of frustration among advocates and candidates alike.

“There has been an increasingly loud conversation in New York about the need for wholesale reform of our election administration,” said Susan Lerner, the executive director of the good government group Common Cause New York.

One particularly head-scratching decision made in New York, according to advocates and administrators, was releasing partial results at all last week, given the roughly 125,000 uncounted absentee ballots from the Democratic mayoral primary that weren’t included, and could help either Kathryn Garcia or Maya Wiley pull past erstwhile frontrunner Eric Adams.

“Issuing partial results does a tremendous disservice to the voters,” Bellows said. “Because we all know that patterns vary dramatically among those who vote on Election Day versus absentee.”

On Monday, Garcia's campaign issued a memo declaring a “strong path to victory” for the former sanitation commissioner, who sat about 2 percentage points behind Adams after the latest vote tally. The memo also challenged the idea that ranked choice voting may diminish voting power in communities of color, as Garcia stands to benefit from late-stage votes in majority Black and Latino neighborhoods that ranked Andrew Yang and Wiley as first and second choices.

The next update, expected Tuesday, will include a significant share of those remaining ballots — but may not account for all of them. And the next update from the city isn’t expected until a week later.

The delay in an election outcome, though, is a feature of ranked-choice voting. That’s why, experts say, voters need to have faith in the system before more cities and states feel comfortable adopting it in the future.

Across the country, two states and 53 jurisdictions will conduct ranked-choice elections in upcoming races, according to FairVote’s analysis.

Matt Dunlap, the former secretary of state of Maine who oversaw its implementation of ranked choice voting after voters approved it in 2016, said successfully moving the state over to an entirely-ranked choice system was largely reliant on trust.

“We couldn’t tell people when we were going to be done [counting votes]. We’d never done this before. All we could tell them is where we were in any given moment,” he said. “We still had people say, ‘This is a rigged election.’”

Dunlap, now the state auditor, said Republicans in his state view ranked-choice voting an “absolute existential threat” to their party. Maine’s state GOP tried to repeal it ahead of the presidential election in an effort to “protect” the vote. Other conservative critics have called it confusing or claimed it tips the scale in favor of Democratic voters.

Yet, exit polls from Common Cause and Rank the Vote NYC (conducted before Tuesday’s error) show high levels of trust in the ranked-choice system from city voters. Nearly 80 percent of voters said they were in favor of using ranked choice voting in future elections, and 95 percent found their ballots easy to complete. It’s good news for advocates in other areas who are still pushing to bring ranked choice voting and similar alternative methods — which, they say, are more reflective of the voters’ will than elections under which a plurality can elect a candidate in a splintered field — to their states and jurisdictions.

“So much of the challenges that we've seen over the past couple of weeks have been linked to ranked-choice voting incorrectly,” said Sara Eskrich, executive director of Democracy Found, an organization pushing to incorporate Final Five Voting — an alternative voting method similar to ranked-choice voting — to Wisconsin elections. “There's a lot of election administration problems that have happened that are not the fault of the electoral system itself.”

And proponents reject the premise that Tuesday’s mistakes had anything to do with the system itself, and argued that it will still be a successful election.

“This has nothing to do with RCV,” Lerner said. “My sense, in all honesty, is that the vast majority of voters are patient. They know democracy takes time. … The push, it seems to me, has been coming from the press and from candidates, and not from the everyday voters.”

And they hope to point to races outside of the mayoral election that used ranked-choice voting in New York City, like those for city council, to soothe officials elsewhere who may be spooked by what happened in New York.

“Let's keep an eye on the full range of races,” Richie implored. “When we're talking with elected officials and charter commissions, they want to know about the whole range of races. And I think that that's going to have a lot of really fascinating narratives.”

But there’s no question that ranked-choice elections are more difficult to administer. Swensen, the Salt Lake County clerk, described herself as “not a great proponent” of the system and said the impetus for bringing it to Utah was mostly from outside groups.

“If the county clerks thought this was something that was beneficial, they would have been on board with it and pushing for it,” she said. “But that was not the case.”

Steve Shepard contributed to this report.

View original post