New York’s Ranked-Choice Voting Is a Mistake

Voters at the polling station in PS 250 during the New York City primary mayoral election in Brooklyn, N.Y., June 22, 2021. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
Traditional majoritarianism is good for parties and politicians.

Yesterday, New Yorkers voted for mayor in the Democratic primary. This primary looks a little different, though, as the candidates are being selected through “ranked-choice voting.” Ranked-choice voting allocates votes to candidates based on how voters rank their first, second, third, etc., favorite candidates. Ranked-choice voting didn’t come out of nowhere, and it’s not going away. It’s part of the Left’s general hostility toward U.S. elections, the Electoral College, and our two-party system. Our traditional majoritarian election method is a far better system than the alternatives.

The New York City primary is one of the first uses of ranked-choice voting. The voting system has been championed by advocates as a “more inclusive” way of choosing representatives. Here’s how it works: If no one gets a majority when voters’ first preferences are tallied, the candidate who received the smallest number of votes is eliminated. The votes of the people who chose the eliminated candidate are then transferred to the other candidates, based on their second preference. This process is repeated until a candidate gets a majority.

Some want to enact ranked-choice voting across the U.S., but any change to our current system would be a mistake. Traditional majoritarianism reduces polarization, creates strong candidates, and gives voters a recognizable opposition that can be called upon when necessary.

The system we currently have is a first-past-the-post system. It’s a bit like a horse race: Whoever gets past the vote threshold first wins the election. In some instances, a candidate needs a majority, but in most cases a person needs only to get the most votes. Defenders of the first-past-the-post system point out that majoritarian systems help to elect more-moderate candidates. Majoritarian systems are stacked against smaller, more-radical parties, hence the idea that voting for a third party is a “wasted vote.”

In our elections, candidates are forced to do an electoral dance. First, they must win the nomination by addressing the concerns of primary voters. Then, the winning candidates “move to the middle” during the general election. Remember that just last year, Joe Biden moved left in the primaries to defeat Bernie Sanders, and then tried to pivot to the middle once the nomination was secured. We take this for granted, but it is a critical feature of our electoral system.

While majoritarian systems push candidates to the middle, the reverse happens in proportional elections. Votes in party primaries are allotted proportionally, so single-issue and fringe candidates can stay in the race much longer. For example, John Kasich siphoned votes from more popular candidates in the 2016 GOP primary even though he had no chance of winning. Many so-called establishment candidates were attacked for failing to get behind a single non-Trump option because the primary system allows for many extra voices.

Majoritarian elections create the winning candidates who are broadly representative of the winning coalition but don’t satisfy any single bloc perfectly. Instead, they lead to broad parties of many different cross-cutting interests. This may seem like it leads to incoherent policies, but it is actually good for parties and politicians.

Candidates benefit from the first-past-the-post system because parties must rally around the nominated candidates. Remember, both candidate Trump and candidate Biden were viewed skeptically by their own parties. There were literal calls to break up the Republican Party during the Trump candidacy; Sanders voters found Biden’s nomination difficult to swallow. However, splinter parties failed, and those who pushed for them simply showed their ignorance.

Strong candidates are good for voters because they allow politicians to present a coherent vision for the country without fear of party reprisal. In America, candidates strengthen parties, not the other way around. For perspective, look at Europe, where politicians rely on their parties for strength.

While U.S. elections are candidate-driven, our two-party system gives voters clear choices about the direction of the country. An essential feature of democracy is that when voters are unhappy, they can vote for change. Republicans and Democrats generally argue for a (mostly) coherent plan for the country. This makes it easy for voters to hold a party accountable. The idea boils down to “If you don’t like what the Democrats are doing, you can always just vote for the Republicans.”

Both ranked-choice voting and proportional systems suffer from the same problem: weak parties and weak candidates. In ranked-choice voting, candidates never command a true majority and so must win by cobbling together voting blocs that help secure a majority coalition. In New York City, Andrew Yang and fellow candidate Kathryn Garcia announced they would campaign together to help boost their second-preference voting numbers. Neither candidate was particularly strong, but with Yang out, Garcia’s chances of winning will increase. The whole process creates weak candidates who are forced to rely on eliminated candidates to secure victory.

Similarly, proportional-representation systems are composed of weak parties that form shaky, unstable governments. Coalition governments in Italy and Greece have been notably unstable and unable to respond to crises. Spain hasn’t had a stable, long-term government in years. Don’t blame the voters, though. In a system with five, six, or seven parties that all have different goals and complex alliances, you can’t just “vote for change.”

Ian Shapiro and Frances Rosenbluth, both distinguished political scientists at Yale University, show in their book Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself how voters have become more restive since parties have become weaker and more beholden to grassroots activism. Small, narrowly tailored candidates are bad for a republic. They also show that two-party systems force parties to form distinct policy visions, which benefits the citizenry.

Ranked-choice voting is part of a broader trend that attacks the American electoral system as “undemocratic” and in need of more “inclusion.” However, our two-party system and majoritarian election process are still a fundamentally good way of running elections. While we wait up to a month for the results of New York’s ranked-choice voting, we should take that time to push back against the effort to undermine our election system.


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