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We Received 63 Questions About Ranked Choice Voting. Here Are Some Answers.

Board of Elections workers tally ballots for the Council District 31 special election in Queens, March 16, 2021.
Board of Elections workers help tally the first round of ranked choice ballots in the Queens City Council District 31 race on Tuesday.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

This article is adapted from our weekly Civic Newsroom newsletter that’s sent out every Tuesday. You can sign up here to get it or fill out the form at the bottom of this post.


By now, you’ve probably at least heard the phrase “ranked choice voting.”

But if our Civic Newsroom inbox is any indication, we’re going to presume you want to know more about it.

We’ve received dozens of requests (at least 63 by our latest count) for more on ranked choice voting and how it works.

We wrote an article that explains the basics. But we’re going to break it down further and answer as many of your questions as possible. We’ve enlisted the help of Sean Dugar, education campaign program director at Rank the Vote, and Deb Otis, senior research analyst at Fair Vote.

First things first

You should know that ranked choice means that instead of picking only one candidate per race, you’re going to rank each candidate by preference on your ballot, choosing your top five candidates in total.

Rank the Vote made this video to show how it works.

So, why are we even using ranked choice voting?

In short, proponents say it encourages more candidates to run and helps voters make choices more aligned with what they really want. Studies show that more women and people of color have won elections in places that use ranked choice voting.

The system also virtually guarantees that the winning candidate was at least the second or third choice of a majority of the voters, which previously wasn’t always the case. In the old system, someone could eventually become the mayor of New York even if they won as little as 40% of votes in the primary, as long as that was more than the other candidates.

Otis said: “You can vote for your favorite candidate as your top choice and consider the other ranking just backup choices.”

One thing, she said, is important for voters to know: “If you rank a backup choice, it will never hurt your first choice candidate. Your second choice will only count if your first choice candidate gets eliminated. If [your first choice candidate has] no chance of winning, then your vote still stays in play, and you can help your second choice.”

Note: This method will be used in New York’s primary on June 22 and in special elections, but will not be used in the general election in November.

Also, RCV is used only for municipal offices like mayor, borough president and City Council, but will not be used in any district attorney races. (District attorneys technically occupy state offices, and are not included in the ranked choice voting change approved by city voters in 2019.)

Voters have already used ranked choice in the city — in two special elections in Queens held last month. And an early verdict is in: The vast majority of voters had no issues with it, according to an exit poll.

Common Cause New York and Rank the Vote NYC conducted the poll of more than 600 voters in the special elections in Council Districts 24 and 31, and found that more than 95% of voters found the ranked choice voting ballot simple to fill out.

Beyond the basics, you asked some really great questions about how this will all play out in New York. Here’s what readers asked and here’s what we learned:

Under Ranked Choice Voting, a ballot may have a longer life

In a large Democrat[ic] primary field of more than 25 [candidates] and the ability to choose only five candidates on my ballot, what happens to my vote if the five I choose are eliminated before a candidate gets 50% of the votes? From what I understand, I will no longer have a vote in the primary selection process.”

Here’s the answer: If the five candidates you choose lose the race and are eliminated, your choices become “an exhausted ballot,” Dugar said, and won’t factor into the final outcome of the election. But voters should keep in mind that under ranked choice voting, exhausted ballots are much less common than in traditional elections.

Why? In a traditional election, an exhausted ballot is any ballot that doesn’t contain a vote for the winner. In a close race between two candidates, that can mean 49% of ballots are exhausted, or far more in a multi-candidate primary where the winning candidate didn’t receive the majority of the votes.

Nationally, Dugar said the average rate of exhausted ballots using ranked choice voting is much lower, citing a Fair Vote study of 89 ranked choice races completed since 2004. In those contests, 11.1% of ballots were exhausted overall.

Picking just one candidate?

Do we have to pick a top five? What if we pick one?”

Your ballot will be counted, but here’s why you should pick more than one:

“You can pick one. You can pick three. You can pick five. It’s totally up to you,” Dugar said. But bear in mind: The more people you list, “the longer your ballot works for you,” he added.

“If you only pick two people, and your two people are gone, or lose, then your ballot is exhausted,” he said. If you like five candidates in a race, it’s better to rank in all five slots. (Yes, we know there are a lot of candidates. Check out our City Council map and the mayoral candidates to read up.)

Otis said: “If there is a whole group of candidates that you choose not to rank, that’s like saying that you don’t have any preference between those remaining candidates. So go ahead and rank as many as you have preferences about.”

Skipping a slot

What happens if I skip ranking? i.e voting for three different people in positions first, second and fourth?”

Here’s the answer: “If you skip a ranking, your rankings will be moved up. So, if you skipped third, then your fourth ranking automatically becomes your third ranking,” Dugar said.

There are a few scenarios where your ballot will be rejected — such as if you fill out more than one candidate for first choice, for example. But instructions on the top of the ballot will describe the correct way, Dugar said. If you want to be sure you know how to fill out the ballot, both Rank the Vote and the Campaign Finance Board have sample ballots so you can get a feel for what to do.

Is there a strategy when it comes to RCV?

“I would like to learn about ranked choice voting strategy … If I hate a candidate, should they be my last rank, or left off? If I love a candidate, but think another has a better shot at winning, how should my ranks stack up?”

Here’s the answer: “Never vote for someone you hate,” Dugar said.

“We like to say: the first choice is the candidate you love. Your second choice is the candidate that you like. Your third and fourth choice is the candidate you like slightly less. And your fifth choice is the candidate you can stand,” Dugar added.

A good way to think about it is: Let’s say you really don’t like strawberry ice cream. If your friend was going to the grocery store and asked you what ice cream flavor they should pick up for you, you’d maybe tell them to pick up mint chip, and if they don’t have mint chip, pick up pistachio or chocolate. But you’d never tell them to pick up strawberry if those other three flavors are sold out.

“If you don’t want that person in office, you don’t vote for them,” Dugar said.

Is Ranked Choice Voting a version of “The Hunger Games”?

What are some of the nuances of Ranked Choice Voting? I know the basics, but I’ve heard about ways the system can be manipulated by candidates who form ‘Hunger Games’-like alliances against a common enemy. Is that true?”

Here’s the answer: Yes! That happens “all the time,” Dugar said, most typically by candidates who share interests or values who team up to tell voters to rank them at the top of the ballot to ensure “someone within that group of candidates at least gets close to winning” if not wins outright.

Dugar calls it the “underdog strategy.” In jurisdictions where ranked choice voting has already been implemented, it often happens where female or Black candidates band together to ensure better representation in office. Or, sometimes it manifests as an issue-based coalition, such as among candidates who believe in serving homeless people.

Otis pointed to a local election in San Francisco as a good example of this. Two Chinese-American candidates running in the same race decided to co-endorse each other because they didn’t agree on everything, but wanted to make sure the Chinese-American community was represented.

“One of those candidates ended up winning in a very narrow victory, and it looks like a lot of it was because the community came together and was able to vote for both of those candidates,” Otis said. “In our old system, probably neither of them would have won because they would have split up their community of support.”

Otis said ranked choice voting prevents candidates from splitting the vote within a party: “In [the old] system, if two similar candidates are running in the race, they worry that they will split the vote, and neither of them can win. But in ranked choice voting, these folks can both have their ideas out there.”

What candidates does RCV benefit?

Two readers asked similar questions: “Which candidates will be helped by ranked choice voting?” and “Do projections indicate that ranked choice is likely to make the winner more moderate or more progressive?”

“Because we are getting rid of a second election — a runoff election — that ranked choice voting helps those who traditionally are less able to raise money,” Dugar said. “That, traditionally, is people of color and women.”

So far, “it does tend to bend more toward the progressive side,” he said, but it’s not inherent to the ranked choice voting system. It’s because of the system favoring those who can “build a broad coalition based on issues.”

Otis said a candidate’s success in ranked choice voting has less to do with ideology than it does with being able to connect to the most voters.

“Our old system encourages candidates to use divisive campaigning and just energize one particular base and hope that that’s enough to scrape by,” she said. “Ranked choice voting creates incentive to reach out to a broader group of the electorate, so the candidate who wins is going to be someone who connected with a lot of New Yorkers, not just one small part of the city.”

Queens residents are set to vote for borough president on March 24. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Reminder in The Bronx!

Live in The Bronx? A special election is coming up on March 23 — and early voting has begun!

Voters in Council District 11 and 15 are eligible to vote. We wrote this guide about the special elections so you can get up to speed.

District 11 covers Bedford Park, Kingsbridge, Norwood, Riverdale, Van Cortlandt Village, Wakefield and Woodlawn Heights; District 15 encompasses Bedford Park, Fordham, Mount Hope, Bathgate, Belmont, East Tremont, West Farms, Van Nest, Allerton and Olinville in.

Got some time? Here are a few campaign events this week

Speaking of events, thanks to everyone who virtually attended the first round of the Civic Newsroom community meetings in Brownsville, Mott Haven, Flushing and the larger citywide gathering. If you missed them, don’t worry. We’ll be back with another round at the beginning of April.

What are your election questions?

If you have any questions about the election process, the candidates or any other information when it comes to voting in New York, let us know by replying to this email or sending a note to civicnewsroom@thecity.nyc.

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