My wife and I opened our mail ballots in May 2021, several weeks before the Democratic primaries for offices in New York City, to see the amazing cornucopia of choices before us, for both candidates and candidate rankings.
The first set of choices were a bounty of candidates. There were 13 candidates for Mayor, 10 for New York City Comptroller, 3 for Public Advocate, 12 for Brooklyn Borough President, 7 for the local City Council seat, plus a few judgeships.
The second set of choices was ranked choice voting, the dramatic change in how the City’s voters choose their leaders by allowing voters to pick up to five candidates, in rank preference order, for each office. The change presented the voter with the new dynamic of ranked choice voting, round by round elimination of the candidate receiving the lowest number of votes. If you chose a candidate who is eliminated, your next selection, if any, would be reallocated to that candidate if they were still in the running, and so on, all through a final round where only two candidates were left, and one of them would be the winner.
RANKED CHOICE VOTING, BALLOT EXHAUSTION, AND TRADITIONAL ELECTIONS
Ranked choice voting also confronts the voter with the question of “ballot exhaustion.” Ballot exhaustion occurs when one’s final choice for an office does not make it through the full rounds of candidate elimination. If your last choice is eliminated before the final round, it will not count in the final outcome of that race. For my wife and I, we ended up selecting less than five choices in all the City office races, despite understanding the risk that our votes might be discarded before the final round.
Ranked choice voting is different than the traditional “winner-take-all” system in widespread use in primaries and general elections in the United States. In a winner-take-all system with more than two candidates, whoever comes in first wins, even if they received only a plurality, not an actual majority, of all the votes cast. New York City’s prior system for Citywide primaries did have a threshold for winning, however; a second, runoff election was required if the leading candidate did not receive 40% of the vote in the initial primary. The City did not have runoffs for Borough President and City Council primaries.
Ranked choice voting, also known as Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) is touted as a more democratic process than a traditional primary, or general election, because it results in the winner getting a majority, rather than a plurality, of the votes.
That is not quite accurate, however.
A study of ranked choice voting in California offered this insight: ranked choice voting “does not insure that the winning candidate will have received a majority of all votes cast, only a majority of all valid votes in the final round of tallying. Thus, it is possible that the winning candidate will fall short of an actual majority when a substantial number of ballots are eliminated, or ‘exhausted’ during the vote distribution process.” (p.42).
Ballot exhaustion from failing to select the top two candidates is not an inherent flaw; after all, in a winner-take-all multiple candidate race, voters could have selected a candidate who did not finish in the top two spots and they would not have expressed a choice between those two. The outcome in a ranked choice election could also have a higher percentage of the total votes cast from the initial round than a winner-take-all primary.
Whether it’s ranked choice, runoff, or winner-take-all, one seeks to understand the will of the voters and how representative is the outcome.
How is one to understand ballot exhaustion in relation to reflecting the intent of the voter? For the regular runoff, the voter’s will is clear. One of the two candidates wins a majority. In ranked choice instant runoff, why does the voter only choose one candidate, or a few candidates, when they have more options? Does that reflect a frustration of the will of the voter due to uncertainty, confusion, or lack of information? If the percentage of exhausted ballots in a particular contest is only a small percentage of the votes cast, doesn’t that mean that the election was adequately representative? And, conversely, if the percentage of exhausted ballots is very high as a percentage of the total votes cast, is that contest unrepresentative ?
Ranked choice voting is so new it’s hard to set a standard for the answers to these questions.
One can only take a look at what just happened in the City’s primaries. The New York City Board of Elections certified the results of the June primaries and published the ranked choice round by round outcomes. As a result, one can see the number of ballots exhausted in every race. Here is a look at how many votes got eliminated in between the first round and the final round in a set of the City’s major primaries:
In the Mayor’s race the exhaustion rate is 15%, which means 85% of the votes cast in the initial round by the voters made it to the final round and were counted. That is good. The ballot exhaustion rates were higher in the Comptroller’s race, at 24%, and the Brooklyn Borough President’s race, at 32%. In the Bronx and Queens Borough President’s races, the exhaustion rates were low, probably in part due to few candidates in those races.
The plain numbers in the table above tell us nothing about the dynamics of these major races, or whether there were major racial disparities in the number of ballots cast and then exhausted for Black, Hispanic, and Asian candidates. Did persons of color end up selecting fewer options than white voters, resulting in their votes getting discarded, and thus not counted, than white voters?
THE MAYOR’S RACE, A POLL, AND BALLOT EXHAUSTION
A warning that the final question in the last paragraph might be a problem was flashed in an Exit Poll conducted by Common Cause and Rank the Vote NYC, enthusiastic proponents of ranked choice voting. The main finding overall was that NYC Democratic voters supported the idea of continuing ranked choice voting.
Nonetheless, embedded in the poll was a response to one question about how many ballot selections voters were making depending on their own race and ethnicity:
Black, Hispanic, and Asian voters ranked two or fewer candidates in the Mayoral primary at higher rates than white voters, according to the sampled voters in the poll. 34% of Black voters selected two or fewer candidates, 36% of Hispanic voters selected two or fewer candidates, 28% of Asians selected two or fewer, and 20% of whites selected two or fewer candidates.
The Mayor’s race may not be the right contest to examine the issue of ballot exhaustion and racial disparities in the utilization of ranked choice voting due to immense publicity and the existence of a dominant African-American candidate, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. Even if African-American and other minority voters were exercising just one or two choices, they may have been voting for Mr. Adams in either their first or second selection, and thus had their vote for him hold through the final round and never get discarded. Borough President Adams’ strength in the campaign, with polls suggesting he would win as much as 50% of the African-American vote and 30% of the Hispanic vote in the first round, may have protected a large share of the minority vote from ballot exhaustion. Ballot exhaustion and racial disparities were more significant issues in other contests.
THE BROOKLYN BOROUGH PRESIDENT AND COMPTROLLER RACES
In the Brooklyn Borough President’s race and the Comptroller’s race, ballot exhaustion for votes going to minority candidates in the initial rounds were extraordinarily high by the final round of those elections.
Here is the first round of the Brooklyn Borough President’s race:
In this race the top four candidates are Councilmember Antonio Reynoso of Bushwick, with about 28%, Councilmember Robert Cornegy of Bedford-Stuyvesant with 19%, Assemblymember JoAnne Simon of Brooklyn Heights-Park Slope third, with 18%( I was a supporter and contributor to Ms. Simon), and City Councilmember Mathieu Eugene of Flatbush, at 8%. There are 8 African-American candidates, including Councilmembers Cornegy and Eugene, Mr. Edwards, Ms. Council, Mr. Jones, Ms. Ocona, Ms. Fields, and Bishop Miller-Whitehead. Their combined total vote in the first round is nearly 140,000 of the 289,000 votes in the Brooklyn B.P. race, or 48% of the vote. Councilmember Cornegy comes in first among those candidates with 55,000 votes, but the other seven African-American candidates have 84,000 votes, 29% of the ballots cast in the initial round.
Here is the Board of Elections round by round elimination, with Rounds 6-11. Exhausted ballots, called Inactive Ballots, are at the bottom of the Columns:
Councilmember Reynoso is the winner of the Brooklyn Borough President Democratic Primary in Round 11 with nearly 108,000 votes in the final tally, about 55%. Assemblymember JoAnne Simon comes in second with nearly 89,000 votes, about 45%. 92,700 votes from the initial round, 32%, failed to transfer by the final round and were exhausted and discarded. As a percentage of the nearly 290,000 initial ballots cast, Councilmember Reynoso won 37.3%, Assemblymember Simon won 30.7%.
In Round 8, Mr. Ramos was eliminated but there were still 4 African-American candidates left with over 128,000 votes, 47% of the remaining votes cast. Mr. Reynoso has 31.7% of the vote in Round 8, Mr. Cornegy 21.6%, and Ms. Simon 21.2%. Ms. Council’s nearly 21,000 votes are eliminated in Round 9, 6,665 of her votes don’t transfer and are exhausted, and over 14,000 of her votes transfer. Ms. Simon moves into second place with 23.4% of the vote. Mr. Reynoso has 33.7% of the vote, and three remaining African-American candidates still have 43%, a plurality, of the Round 9 vote.
In Round 10, Mr. Eugene and Mr. Edwards are eliminated. 27,000 of their combined 52,000 votes in Round 9, over 50%, fail to transfer and are discarded. The 25,000 votes remaining transfer to Simon, Cornegy, and Reynoso with 39%, 33% and 28% respectively. In Round 11, Councilmember Cornegy is eliminated. Over 41,000 – nearly 60%, of his 70,000 Round 10 votes – do not transfer and are discarded. Assemblymember Simon gets 17,000 of the more than 28,000 votes from Councilmember Cornegy that do transfer, and Councilmember Reynoso receives over 11,500.
The eight African-American candidates had about 140,000, or 48%, of the votes in the initial round of this contest. At the time of Councilmember Cornegy’s elimination, he had over 70,000 votes after round by round transfers, but over 43,000 votes received by the other seven African-American candidates at the time of their elimination were exhausted and never transferred to Mr. Cornegy or anyone else. More than 41,000 of Mr. Cornegy’s votes at the time of his elimination also failed to transfer. A total of 85,000 votes that had gone to African-American candidates failed to transfer at the time of their elimination and were never counted in the final round.
Ranked choice voting is not the cause of the initial splintering of the African-American vote in this contest. Ballot exhaustion and the discarding of votes, however, is intrinsic to ranked choice voting, and the fact remains that an extremely high percentage of votes going to African-American candidates in the Brooklyn Borough President’s race were not counted in the final outcome. Voting rights laws that protect the rights of persons of color seek to assure that they have a full and meaningful opportunity to exercise their franchise. Could a failure to recognize the impact of too few candidate selections have resulted in frustrating the will of African-American voters in Brooklyn?
THE COMPTROLLER’S RACE
Here is the first round of the ten candidate Comptroller’s Race:
Councilmember Lander and Speaker Johnson won 463,000 of the 868,000 ballots initially cast, over 53%. Five minority candidates, Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, Senator Brian Benjamin, Senator Kevin Parker, Reshma Patel, and Alex Pan, won 303,000 votes, about 35%. Three white candidates, including Assemblymember David Weprin, Zach Iscol, and Terry Liftin, won 100,000 votes, 11.5% of the total.
Here is Final Round of the Comptroller’s race, with Rounds 6-10:
In the final round, Councilmember Lander is the winner with nearly 341,000 votes, Speaker Johnson comes in second with over 315,000 votes, and over 211,000 votes from the first round, about 24.36%, were exhausted and discarded. As a percentage of the initial votes cast, Lander won 39.28%, Johnson 36.36%, and 24.36% were discarded.
211,000 of the 404,000 ballots received by the eight candidates eliminated before the final round, or more than 50%, were discarded. About 170,000 of the 303,000 votes, or 56%, received by the five minority candidates were discarded prior to the final round. Michelle Caruso-Cabrera had over 165,000 votes in Round 10 when she was eliminated, but only 75,000 of her votes transferred to either Councilmember Lander or Speaker Johnson. 90,000 of her votes, 55%, did not transfer and were discarded.
In the Comptroller’s race, the overall ballot exhaustion rate was 24%. Minority candidates received 35% of the initial vote and 56% of their initial vote was exhausted. The three white candidates who did not make the final round had 11.5% of the initial vote, and 40% of their vote was exhausted as of when they were eliminated. Could ranked choice voting in the Comptroller’s race resulted in the will of minority voters not being realized in that contest?
There were 46 Democratic primaries for City Council (of the 51 total seats in the Council) with a whopping 299 candidates, more than 240 of whom received public matching funds. In fifteen races there were first round winners, ten of whom were incumbents. Twelve City Council primaries with the highest rate of exhausted ballots, ranging from 18% to 33%, are shown below:
BALLOT EXHAUSTION IN COUNCIL RACES
Analyzing ballot exhaustion and racial disparity issues in these many City Council contests is beyond the frame for this article. Suffice it to say these concerns manifest themselves in many of these contests. In support of ranked choice voting in the City Council races, in the contests with many candidates, at least the initial round votes consolidate into results where two leaders get a majority of the initial votes cast.
In the down-ballot races for local office, it is more difficult to vote “ strategically “ to attempt to insure one’s vote is not wasted on a losing candidate. Television advertising, public polling, substantial newspaper or media coverage may be lacking compared to races for Mayor or other higher offices. The voters have less information about the candidates, especially if there are few trusted sources of information, so they may halt voting after selecting just a few, or even only one candidate, and risk seeing their ballot discarded before reaching the final round. This may partially explain high rates of ballot exhaustion in the City Council races.
RANKED CHOICE VOTING- A NEW SET OF PROBLEMS FOR A MEANINGFUL EXERCISE OF THE FRANCHISE AND RACIAL JUSTICE
Ranked choice voting appears to have worked without massive ballot exhaustion in the Mayor’s race, but that may have been due to immense publicity and a dominant African-American candidate. In many other races ballot exhaustion and racial disparities were clearly problematic as ballots going to candidates of color were exhausted at high rates. But other factors, such as high numbers of candidates in some contests and a splintering of the votes for candidates of color, also affected the results.
The Board of Elections needs to publish information on how many selections voters made for candidates in each of the races, to get a real handle on whether there were major racial disparities affecting outcomes. Ranked choice voting has some advantages, and some flaws, too, that require further study before there is a wholesale embrace of the new system. It is far from a perfect system and presents the voters with complicated new problems for a meaningful exercise of the franchise and racial justice.