When New York City voters approved the use of ranked-choice voting for the 2021 mayoral and City Council elections in November 2019, people paid special attention. Compared to places where ranked-choice voting previously had been adopted, including San Francisco, Minneapolis and other cities, New York City stood out because of its sheer size and place in American politics. If ranked-choice voting succeeded in New York, it could validate what proponents ranging from United States Senator Elizabeth Warren to ranked-choice advocacy organizations like FairVote say the new system of voting represents: the future of elections in the U.S.

But with former 18th Borough President Eric Adams now the official winner of the Democratic primary for mayor of New York, the role of ranked-choice voting in the outcome is a topic of discussion. Breakdowns at the New York City Board of Elections—late implementation of new voting technology and the use of a batch of test ballots that briefly got mixed into actual results and reported publicly before the error was discovered—at times drew more scrutiny than the results themselves. The missteps may have obscured a public post mortem on how ranked-choice voting fared in one of its largest tests to date.

Ranked-choice voting works in New York City in ways similar to other locations where it has been implemented, from Maine to Alaska. Rather than voting for only one candidate as in a customary election, voters in a ranked-choice contest can select several candidates, ranking them in order of preference. The New York City mayoral race allowed voters to rank up to five candidates, ranking their preference order from first to fifth.

Once polls close in an election deploying ranked-choice voting, the votes are counted and a candidate can win in the first round only if they receive more than 50% of the total vote — that is, a simple majority. If no candidate receives a majority in the first round, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and that candidate’s second preference votes are distributed among the remaining candidates. This process continues until either one candidate receives a majority of votes or until only two candidates remain.

(Cesar Calderon/BGA)

In New York, after the first round of votes were counted in the June 22 Democratic mayoral primary, the process of ranked-choice voting at first seemed to unfold seamlessly. Adams maintained a nine-point lead over Maya Wiley, a former counsel to current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. However, because Adams did not surpass the 50% threshold, the last-place candidate, lawyer and businessman Isaac Wright Jr., was eliminated. Wright’s second-preference votes then were distributed to the remaining candidates. The process of eliminating candidates and redistributing votes to the rest of the field continued for several rounds before the first official round of tallies was released to the public one week after election day. Following two weeks and seven rounds of reshuffling results, Adams obtained a majority and on July 20 was declared winner of the primary and likely will be New York’s next mayor.

The Board of Elections Snafu

What at first appeared as an orderly process broke down abruptly one week after election day, on the afternoon of Tuesday, June 29th, after New York City’s Board of Elections included nearly 135,000 ranked-choice voting test ballots when releasing a round of the primary election results.

Immediately, Adams’ campaign noted the discrepancy after a significant tightening of results and released a statement expressing concerns about “irregularities” in election results. Wiley weighed in later that day, saying “This error by the Board of Elections is not just failure to count votes properly today, it is the result of generations of failures that have gone unaddressed.” She added, for emphasis, “Sadly, it is impossible to be surprised.”

A few hours after releasing the batch of test ballots, the Board of Elections removed them from its website. The Board of Elections in a statement that night explained that the test ballots were never removed from the voting software, were released to the public, and briefly skewed the election results. The next day, the Board of Elections released the correct version of the election results.

Advocates of ranked-choice voting assert that the release of election results based on the counting of dummy ballots was a byproduct of outdated and flawed systems at the Board of Elections, not ranked-choice voting itself. For instance, in the weeks following the election, Wiley praised ranked choice-voting in a Washington Post opinion article, while also criticizing the decisions made by the Board of Elections. “From refusing to hire experts to help administer the new computer system for RCV, to the lunacy of sharing results without having counted all ballots, the BOE deserves castigation and badly needs reform.” Wiley wrote.

Richard Pildes, a constitutional law professor at New York University School of Law, defended ranked-choice voting from any guilt by association with the Board of Elections. “The issues in New York City are not inherent to ranked-choice voting, but instead, the Board of Elections, which made some very poor choices about how and when it released ballots,” he said in a phone interview.

The intense scrutiny in the aftermath of the New York City primary focused on more than just the confusion caused by the dummy ballots. Another factor: Election administrators implemented new electronic software just four weeks before the major municipal election, giving them minimal time and resources to properly test the new voting software.

What’s more, Chris Hughes, policy director for the non-profit organization Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center that created the new software used in the primary election, said the Resource Center made repeated attempts to help the Board of Elections ensure smoother tabulation of ballots, both before and after the election. However, Hughes said, the Board of Elections never responded to emails or phone calls. The Board of Elections did not respond to the BGA’s request for comment, but its June 30th statement on Twitter, posted before our request, said the error was caused by humans, not the new software.

Hughes does not buy the Board of Elections’ argument. Properly used, his organization’s software would have spotted any human error before results were released to the public, he told the BGA. Taken together, the mistaken use of test ballots and botched implementation of new voting software just weeks before the election put the New York elections board at the center of criticism. “Most headlines that come out of New York City’s primary is yet another pattern and indication of a dysfunctional board of elections,” said Hughes.

According to Hughes, what happened in New York City could have been prevented had the Board of Elections implemented the software sooner. “It takes more than three weeks to fully develop and understand election infrastructure. More time would have helped,” Hughes said.

New York University politics professor Steven Brams in an interview said the board of election’s decision to implement new voting software less than one month before the primary “worsened the problems associated with a complicated and hard-to-understand method of voting.” As an outspoken critic of ranked-choice voting, however, Brams stopped short of calling New York’s first implementation of ranked-choice voting a disaster. Instead, Brams called it a “semi-disaster because of a defective Board of Elections.”

Questions also have emerged about whether ranked-choice voting confuses those who cast their ballots this way for the first time. According to reporting by the New York Times, some voters felt uncertain about how to navigate the system. But exit polls conducted by polling firm Edison Research, in a study commissioned by ranked-choice voting proponent Rock the Vote, found that over 95% of 1,662 people who voted either early or on election day thought ranked-choice voting was “simple to complete.” Ben Weinberg, director of public policy and a contributor to the final report released by Citizens Union, an organization committed to increasing accessibility and transparency in New York government, said in an interview with the BGA he was “shocked, but ultimately unsurprised because ranked-choice voting is like making everyday decisions. You make choices between what you want and don’t want, which naturally carries over to the ballot box.”

Timeliness of Results

An unavoidable consequence of ranked-choice voting, in many instances, is the lengthy time needed before a declaration of final election results. The BGA asked New York City Council Member Daneek Miller what she would say to critics who say that the final results took too long to be counted. Miller reponsed in an email, “I agree.”

Rob Richie, the chief executive of ranked-choice advocacy group FairVote, on the other hand, said he believes New York City’s election results are not typical of what happens in other cities that have deployed ranked-choice voting. “(Cities) like San Francisco and Oakland have a best practice of running preliminary tallies on election night with the ballots that have been received, and every day thereafter until complete,” Richie said. This approach gives voters a clear picture of where the race stands on election night and every day afterward until a winner is announced, instead of having to wait days for information about where results stand. “What went on in (New York City’s) reporting of results is not all intrinsic to the use of the system, but just how one prepares for it. It was also affected by NY state’s absentee voting laws that make early processing of such ballots impossible,” Richie added in an email response to the BGA.

The more delay there is in counting ballots, the worse it is for voters’ confidence, according to constitutional law professor at the University of California at Irvine Richard L. Hasen. In Hasen’s book, Election Meltdown, he warns that failing to have competent election officials who can count votes accurately and quickly undermines voter confidence and also can lead elected officials to promote conspiracy theories and lies about the outcome of an election.

Transforming Campaigns

Both critics and supporters acknowledge ranked-choice voting has fundamentally changed how New York City conducts elections and the ways in which its voters determine who holds elected office. Beyond that, ranked-choice voting also has transformed how candidates and campaigns operate. For example, in the final days of the Democratic primary in New York, the campaigns of former presidential candidate Andrew Yang and former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia formed an alliance. “In ranked-choice voting, it might not always be a lovefest but it certainly doesn’t have to be a slugfest,” Garcia said at a joint campaign appearance with Yang.

Andrew Szilva, president of FairVote Illinois, also pointed to the Garcia-Yang partnership as an positive aspect of ranked-choice voting. “Ranked-choice voting encourages candidates to spend less time attacking each other by chang(ing) the dynamic of political campaigns from personality focused to more issue focused campaigns,” Szilva told the BGA. If it were not for ranked-choice voting, Szilva argues, it is unclear whether Yang and Garcia would have felt compelled to join forces.

However, critics of the system like Brams view the Garcia-Yang partnership as “an effort to strategize and take votes away from other candidates.” Once a candidate like Yang drops out, Brams argued, it puts another mid-range candidate like Garcia in a position to receive second-preference votes instead of the leading candidate, Adams,

The tabulation of vote totals does not unequivocally support Brams’ theory. There seems little evidence to prove the alliance propelled votes toward Garcia and away from Adams. Before Yang was eliminated, Adams had 34.7% of the vote; Wiley had 26.1%, and Garcia had 24.4%, according to final results released by the Board of Elections. When Yang’s nearly-15% of the vote share was re-distributed, votes amounting to 5.8% of the total went to Adams, 6% to Garcia, and 2.9% of it went to Miley, according to a tabulation by the nonprofit digital news website The City. There is no public polling or other reliable data that demonstrates what role, if any, the alliance played in the way Yang voters would have distributed their votes had there been no Garcia-Yang alliance.

Lisa Disch, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, said she sees a broader benefit that goes beyond the political calculations of campaigns. “It’s not clear there were benefits for the candidates, there certainly were benefits for democracy,” she said. The potential for mutually useful alliances may help diminish incivility in campaigning overall. “The Garcia-Yang alliance gave a nice example of the way (ranked-choice voting) discourages negative campaigning,” she added.

Effect on City Council

Much attention has been placed on ranked-choice voting for its performance on the mayoral level, in large part because of the Board of Elections’ error. The results from the primary election for City Council indicate another possible benefit of ranked-choice voting: It may have contributed to the election of a more diverse set of leaders. Currently, of the 51 New York City Council members, 14 are women. After the primary election for City Council under ranked-choice voting, 29 women are the Democratic candidates now standing for a general election to the overwhelmingly Democratic City Council. And of the 29 Democratic women competing in the general election, 26 are women of color and 18 women of color under 40—meaning that, for the first time, New York City’s City Council could have a majority of women members, in a Council that skews younger than in previous years.

Richie finds the number of women expected to win “remarkable,” while also pointing out the “incredible surge of women who ran for office.” Richie cited a report by Citizens Union that found more than 150 women ran for city-wide elected offices in 2021, a three-fold increase from 52 women candidates in 2013. Indeed, many supporters of ranked-choice voting see the increase in women candidates as an indication that the new system helps encourage a more diverse pool of candidates to run for and ultimately hold public office.

Across the country, ranked-choice voting is being tested as a new system of voting, from student body elections at colleges to presidential primaries in four states including Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, and Wyoming. No matter how ranked-choice voting unfolded in the past, New York City provided a new set of data—and a much broader audience for the experiment, given the city’s unique, high-profile role in American life. While there were hiccups in counting votes, Disch perhaps encapsulated it best: “The fact that (ranked-choice voting) survived even the New York Board of Elections and produced solid results shows the robustness of the system.” After all—even in the face of errors by the New York City Board of Elections—ranked-choice voting held up and even provided some of the benefits its proponents claim.

Victor Shi is an intern for the BGA Policy team.