The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ranked-choice voting worked in New York. More places should use it.

New York City Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams walks in a ticker-tape parade on July 7 in New York. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New York’s Democratic mayoral primary will undoubtedly be remembered for a chaotic and lengthy vote-counting process. Only on Tuesday, after two weeks of vote-counting, was Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams projected to be the winner. That is unfortunate, because the new ranked-choice system did not cause the debacle. New York’s incompetent election administrators flubbed basic vote-counting tasks, as they have in previous elections without ranked-choice voting. Absentee ballots also took time to collect and tally. Ranked-choice, on the other hand, showed that it is an attractive alternative to traditional first-past-the-post elections.

In a ranked-choice system, voters submit lists of candidates in their preferred order. The candidate who attracts the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated after an initial count. Voters who put that eliminated candidate top on their lists have their votes reallocated to their second choices. This process continues until one candidate claims more than 50 percent of the vote.

Not quite all the sunny predictions that ranked-choice voting advocates made about this system materialized. In theory, it should reduce acrimony, but the New York primary race still got very ugly. The system also seemed to encourage gaming; as the election drew near, candidates forged alliances to guide their voters on whom to pick second on their candidate lists.

But this teaming up may not have been an entirely bad thing. Ranked-choice voting encouraged candidates to seek compromise and identify areas of common ground. This enabled voters to identify the candidates who represented the section of the political spectrum or who prioritized the issues that appealed to them.

When voters did so, the ranked-choice system came through on its most important promise: benefiting candidates who are broadly acceptable by weeding out niche candidates who would have fractured the field in a traditional vote. Mr. Adams led after the first and final tallies. But in the final round, his opposition turned out not to be left-wing champion Maya Wiley, who came in second in the initial count, but Kathryn Garcia, a less ideologically hard-edge candidate. Had Ms. Wiley prevailed in the initial tally, which was a plausible result in a fractured field of candidates, ranked-choice voting almost certainly would have saved Mr. Adams or propelled Ms. Garcia into the lead over the less broadly popular Ms. Wiley.

In other words, the system provided much more information about what voters wanted. It turns out that lefty progressives are a substantial but minority group in New York. Ranked-choice voting makes it harder for candidates with a fervent but narrow base of support to eke out a victory.

Supporters of Mr. Adams may not have appreciated the close contest the ranked-choice system produced, but he can now claim an ultimate 50.5 percent victory rather than entering the general election with the support of the less than a third of primary voters he attracted in the initial round, enabling him to lead the city’s Democrats with more legitimacy.

Ranked-choice voting should be more common. The already-crowded Maryland Democratic gubernatorial primary due next year, for example, would be a perfect race in which to employ this system.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: Ranked-choice voting is not the best choice for elections

The Post’s View: Give ranked voting a shot. Our democracy would benefit.

Karen Tumulty: Get used to ranked-choice voting. It works.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel: Ranked-choice voting is already changing politics for the better

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