Ranked Choice Voting isn’t the Problem in New York City’s Mayoral Election

Confusion reigns. More than a week after Democratic voters from New York City’s five boroughs cast their primary ballots, we still don’t know who those voters chose as their party’s nominee for mayor. Seven days after the polls closed, the city’s Board of Elections issued preliminary results, then quickly withdrew them, citing a discrepancy in which test ballots were counted along with real votes.

Opponents of Ranked Choice Voting  are having a public field day, declaring that the results — or, rather, lack of results — prove the method is defective. It’s just too complicated, they claim, for the average voter to figure out.

They’re wrong. The New York City Board of Elections’s apparent inability to quickly, competently, and accurately count votes isn’t an indictment of Ranked Choice Voting. It’s an indictment of the New York City Board of Elections.

What’s going on here? What’s the problem?

One possible explanation is incompetence. Mike Ryan, the board’s director, went on extended medical leave after his relationship with a voting machine vendor led to calls for a conflict of interest investigation. His absence left the board’s operations in the hands of deputy executive director Dawn Sandow, who may be a token Republican appointee rather than a skilled administrator. An anonymous fellow GOP official tells the New York Post that Sandow “isn’t very qualified to run a large agency.”

Another possibility is that this Ranked Choice Voting exercise isn’t going very well because the powers that be in New York City politics don’t WANT it to go very well.  In a system where two parties continually dominate, and in a city where one of those parties enjoys a pretty firm stranglehold on power, RCV threatens to upset the (big) apple cart. It produces winners based on the broadest level of popular support rather than leaving voters with a binary choice between lesser evils. Party bosses hate that idea. It’s possible that New York City’s version of RCV was built to fail

A non-possibility is that Ranked Choice Voting itself is to blame for the fiasco. There’s simply nothing complex or confusing about it.

The voter simply ranks the available candidates from first place to last, something he or she probably already did when considering which candidate to vote for in “vote for one” elections.

At the election administration level, RCV MORE work, but it’s not COMPLICATED work. If no candidate receives a majority of “first place” votes, the candidate with the fewest such votes is eliminated. His or her votes are transferred to those voters’ second choices. This process repeats until one candidate holds a majority. Even in hand-counted elections it would be a simple and tedious chore, not rocket science. In the computer age, it’s a simple coding problem.

Among the explanations for the New York City debacle, I lean toward administrative incompetence rather than political conspiracy. But either way, New Yorkers shouldn’t let the opponents of Ranked Choice Voting defeat its future use. Where democratic processes are important, RCV is a needed improvement.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.