Maine will use it for the 2020 presidential election. Several presidential candidates from both major parties — including Democratic hopefuls Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Michael Bennet, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang and former Republican Gov. Bill Weld — support it. It has the power to reshape our democracy.
“It” is ranked-choice voting (RCV), a simple but revolutionary way of counting ballots. Instead of picking just one candidate, voters put their preferences in order. The winner then becomes not just the person who gets the most votes, but the person with the broadest overall support.
This November, New York City’s voters will decide whether to adopt RCV for municipal primary and special elections. If Big Apple residents approve the measure, the number of Americans living in a jurisdiction using this transformative voting method would more than double.
Under NYC’s version of RCV, voters would be allowed to rank up to five candidates for each city office. If no candidate earns an overall majority, then the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated and the voters who selected that person have their second choice count instead. The counting process is repeated until a candidate has majority support.
RCV has many benefits: It better ensures winners receive a majority of the vote, ends the “spoiler effect” by giving voters more choices, improves turnout, can help to elect minority candidates, and makes political campaigns more civil.
Recent city elections have highlighted the need for ranked-choice voting. Earlier this year, Jumaane Williams, competing in a field of 17 candidates, won the public advocate special election with just 32.8% of the vote. Not long after, Melinda Katz emerged victorious in the Queens district attorney Democratic primary with a mere 38.9% of the vote. It is unfortunate that such a small portion of the electorate — well less than a majority — decided these races.
Putting RCV on the ballot in NYC is one embodiment of an important trend in U.S. politics to make voting easier, better and more secure.
In 2018, for instance, citizens in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Utah passed redistricting reform via ballot initiative. Michigan voters also enacted sweeping election changes, adopting automatic voter registration, same day registration and no-excuse absentee balloting. Maryland approved same-day voter registration. Missouri adopted campaign finance and ethics measures. Florida voted in favor of a state constitutional amendment to re-enfranchise 1.4 million returning citizens — individuals with felony convictions who have served their time. And on the local level, several places enacted public financing regimes.
Amid the progress toward democracy reform, however, entrenched politicians are thwarting the voters’ will in many places, repealing voter-backed initiatives or placing obstacles that harm their effectiveness. Perhaps the most blatant example comes from Florida, where the state legislature enacted new rules to limit the ability of former felons to regain their rights, mandating that individuals with felony convictions must pay back all fines, fees and restitution before they are eligible to vote under the new state constitutional amendment.
Entrenched politicians in many of these places are afraid of the voters, who understand that these positive reforms can improve state and local democracy — at the expense of the political elites holding on to their power.
There is no reason to believe New York City politicians will thwart the will of voters should they approve ranked-choice voting this fall. Nevertheless, this one municipal ballot initiative is integral to the larger national fight for a better democracy.
By approving reform, New York City can continue to remind Americans that we do not have to tolerate a broken democracy. A more perfect union is always within our grasp, if only we demand it.
Douglas is a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law and author of “Vote for US: How to Take Back Our Elections and Change the Future of Voting.” Eichen is campaigns manager of Equal Citizens and co-author of “Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want.”