Andrew Yang
Democratic mayoral candidate Andrew Yang holds a news conference, Thursday, March 11, 2021 in the Dumbo neighborhood of New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan) Credit: AP

“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” That’s what Liza Minnelli sang about New York City. Then Frank Sinatra. Now the same can be said for ranked choice voting.

Ranked-choice voting allows you to rank candidates in order of preference. (In New York City, voters can rank a total of five candidates.) Then when the votes are counted, if your candidate doesn’t have enough first-place votes to win, that person is eliminated and your second-place candidate gets your vote. The elimination process continues until one candidate is left standing.

This alternative voting method is gaining momentum. Thirty cities and two states have now approved its use in some form. And New York City, with 5.6 million registered voters, is the biggest jurisdiction yet. After this year’s mayoral election, if RCV is a smash, more and more states and cities will likely embrace it. But not every show on Broadway is a smash; some bomb. If New Yorkers are unhappy with what happens to their city, it could be curtains for RCV.

RCV advocates should worry about three things. One is that the city’s $2 million effort to educate the public about the new system before the June 22 primary doesn’t appear to be educating much of the public.

Last month, the New York Daily News aired concerns that “[p]uzzled voters could slow down voting, prompting long lines, and an education effort that only reaches some neighborhoods might give some citizens more say than others[.]” Writing for the anti-poverty Community Service Society last week, David R. Jones chastised the city’s Board of Elections for failing “to teach voters about the new system in a meaningful way that breeds public confidence.”

The second is that the city’s Board of Elections—which is often prefaced with “notoriously slow”—will botch the tabulation or suffer the perception thereof. In last year’s June primary, 84,000 mail ballots got tossed, allowing Donald Trump and others to question the credibility of the election (though late arrivals and voter errors are not the fault of the Board.) Any hiccups during the vote count, especially if the vote is close, will trigger a slew of complaints.

The average voter can’t control how the city’s government agencies handle the transition to RCV. But there is a third potential outcome which voters do have the power to stop: Mayor Andrew Yang.

The job of New York City Mayor is famously the second toughest job in America, responsible for a budget that last clocked in at $88 billion and a workforce of more than 325,000. (New York City has more government employees than every other city in America and 47 of the 50 states.) The mayor has authority over the city’s 1866 public schools, which educate over one million children. The mayor also controls the New York Police Department, which is not just the largest in the country but also has its own counterterrorism division. The NYPD has also frequently been in the middle of some of the nation’s most heated controversies involving race, police brutality, and protest response.

This is not an entry-level job. You can’t wear a paper hat that says “Trainee.”

New York City would be gambling it all on Yang, who has failed upward most of his adult life. As described in an otherwise positive profile for The Atlantic, Yang co-founded “a start-up that helped celebrities raise money for charity” which “failed, as did other whiteboard-stage products Yang worked on.” Then he became CEO of a test prep company, which got bought by Kaplan, “making him a millionaire” and giving him one bright spot on his resume. That was followed by founding a non-profit which promised to create 100,000 jobs in the technology, but “it, too, floundered, generating just a few thousand jobs.”

Then he scored 6th place in Iowa, 8th place in New Hampshire, and a sweet CNN pundit gig. Nothing in that charmed professional life prepares Yang to be mayor of the biggest city in America. Granted, New York has survived mayors with personality disorders, like Rudy Giuliani, and those like Abe Beame, who presided over the fiscal crisis of the 70s. But Yang does not have the ballast of a U.S. Attorney (Giuliani), a former Comptroller (Beame), two congressmen (John Lindsay and Ed Koch), or Manhattan Borough President (David Dinkins) or a billionaire CEO (Mike Bloomberg).

And little of what Yang has done on the campaign trail has given close observers the impression that he has prepared himself for the job. As Jarrett Murphy wrote this week for City Limits, “Yang has gotten the most ink for saying big things that end up looking pretty problematic on closer inspection … Yang, for all his professed wonkiness and devotion to math, takes a simplistic approach to complex problems.”

Yet he could become mayor. He has led in every poll, fueled by his high name recognition. Yang is known by 85% of voters, according to a Fontas/CODA poll taken last month, 21 points more than the next familiar candidate.

That same poll gave Yang a small plurality of 16%. But this is a sprawling field of some 40 candidates, about eight of whom are considered serious. Candidates who didn’t start out as well-known commodities have been having a hard time breaking out. Even if Yang doesn’t end up with the most first-place votes, his semi-celebrity status could yield him enough second-place votes to win the ranked-choice primary. And without a strong Republican or independent candidate, the Democratic nominee is likely to become mayor.

Now I can’t guarantee Yang would be a terrible mayor. Sometimes the unlikeliest people meet their moment. But if Yang does end up being a terrible mayor, and he gets there because ranked-choice voting is not well suited to sift through crowded primary fields, don’t be surprised if New Yorkers demand their old voting system back.

Ranked-choice voting more easily works as intended in a general election with third-party candidates, helping to efficiently distill a race to a two-person contest without the hassle of a runoff.

For example, in the 2018 U.S. House race to represent Maine’s 2nd congressional district, the Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin won a 46% plurality of the first-choice votes. But there were two left-leaning independent candidates who combined for 8%. Once those two were eliminated and their 2nd-choice votes redistributed, the Democratic nominee Jared Golden won with 50.6%. Ranked-choice voting helped make the final outcome reflect the ideological tilt of those who voted. While Republicans cried foul because Poliquin didn’t win despite having the most first-place votes, the voters in Maine’s 2nd weren’t upset with the outcome; Golden just got re-elected in a two-person race by a healthy 6-point margin.

However, there is one case of ranked-choice voting in which the outcome was so despised that voters threw out the entire system which should be a warning to New York.

Burlington, Vermont, adopted RCV by referendum in 2005. The following year, a third-party candidate, Bob Kiss of the Progressive Party, won a five-person race. As he had a plurality of first-place votes, his win was noncontroversial.

But in 2009, Kiss was re-elected in a more convoluted fashion. In another five-person race, Kiss got only 29% of the first-place votes, with Republican Kurt Wright coming in first with 33%. The Democrat Andy Montroll and the other also-rans were eliminated, and Kiss got enough second-place votes to win.

In and of itself, Kiss winning on the strength of second-place votes is no big deal. That’s how RCV is supposed to work. The wrinkle is that Montroll actually had the most combined first-place and second-place votes. He was the second-place choice for more than half of Wright’s voters and nearly 80% of Kiss’ voters. However, despite having the broadest appeal, Montroll never got to claim his second-place votes because Kiss and Wright weren’t knocked out of the final round.

The only way for those Wright-first/Montroll–second voters to have gotten their second-most preferred outcome—instead of their third, fourth or fifth—was to have recognized the Republican wasn’t going to win and switched their order of preference. But that requires voting with a high degree of political knowledge, strategy, and pragmatism.

Kiss’s second term was marked by scandal; he improperly diverted taxpayer funds to prop up a municipal-owned telecom company. Critics channeled voter anger into a successful 2010 referendum repealing the RCV system, though referendum turnout was low and support for repeal was concentrated in Republican neighborhoods. And eleven years later, just last month, Burlington residents voted in another referendum to bring RCV back, though the state government has to ratify the decision. Still, the point remains that if a candidate becomes mayor due to a shaky RCV result and performs badly, RCV may take the fall.

If you are New York City Democratic voter who has more faith than I do in Yang’s governing ability, then, by all means, put Yang high up on your primary ballot. But if you share my doubts, then you need to not only leave him off of your ballot, you also need to also convince other voters that they shouldn’t lazily include Yang in their top five just because he’s a fun guy they have seen on TV.

Of course, such strategic coordination is essentially impossible to execute in a bottom-up fashion. To sufficiently deprive Yang of getting the second, third, fourth, and fifth place votes which could clinch his victory, Yang’s rivals need to coordinate among themselves and get that word out to their supporters. Voter education is hard enough. This is like an SAT problem.

Such open strategizing is not without risk. To the average voters, a Stop Yang plot may come across as distasteful Machiavellian scheming, even bigoted. When candidate Eric Adams said, inaccurately, that “Andrew Yang never held a job in his entire life,” Yang’s campaign managers responded with a not-so-subtle allusion to the recent spike in anti-Asian violence: “The timing of his hate-filled vitriol towards Andrew should not be lost on anyone.” Yang’s lovable, Everyman persona makes him about as easy to attack as Bambi. Candidates have begun to try, but their broadsides seem like desperate jabs from career politicians.

As much as a collective effort to knock off a candidate with ranked-choice voting seems like 3-D chess, it has worked when coalition building between rival mayoral campaigns overcame a well-financed frontrunner. In Oakland’s 2010 mayoral contest, former state Senate president Don Perata led the pack, even though he was more conservative than much of the field. But Perata focused on getting first-place votes and didn’t have a game plan to scoop up second-place votes. City Councilor Jean Quan did.

“She singled out Mr. Perata … and aligned herself with the other nine candidates, particularly the other major challenger, Rebecca Kaplan,” reported The New York Times. Perata ended up with the most initial first-place votes, with Quan having the second-most. But when the count narrowed to those top three candidates, Quan received about two-thirds of Kaplan’s redistributed votes and eked out the victory.

An aide to Kaplan said of Quan, “She ran a very focused campaign to be the second-place candidate for a lot of candidates. She never spoke ill of anyone except Don Perata, and she really became the leader of the ‘not Don Perata’ sentiment in Oakland, and that’s how she became everybody’s second choice.”

A more brazen strategy almost worked to thwart the frontrunner in San Francisco’s eight-candidate 2018 mayoral special election. Jane Kim and Mark Leno were running to the left of the Acting Mayor London Breed. In an attempt to avoid splitting the progressive vote, Leno and Kim produced a joint advertisement, urging their collective supporters to top their ballot with both of them—an implicit call to shun Breed.

Leno and Kim, who placed second and third respectively, combined for 122,154 initial first-place votes, more than Breed’s 92,121. When the ranked choice field narrowed to those three candidates, Leno and Kim had a combined 134,750 votes, with Breed only at 102,767. The Leno-Kim alliance had an impact; about two-thirds of Kim’s vote was redistributed to Leno. But that still left Leno 2,546 votes short.

Even though Breed won anyway, Leno was almost surely better off having tried to pull off an alliance than leaving everything to chance. And New York City’s Democratic mayoral candidates shouldn’t leave their fates to chance either.

The 2010 and 2018 Bay Area mayoral elections were nonpartisan general elections with some degree of ideological distinction between the frontrunner and the main challengers. New York City has a Democratic primary with a frontrunner in Yang who some characterize as relatively conservative—as he has criticized teachers’ unions, shown restraint regarding higher taxes on the wealthy, and frowned upon political correctness—but who also has some cache on the left thanks to his advocacy of a universal basic income which now seems to have broader appeal after a year of government checks helping many Americans muddle through the pandemic. Yang’s ideological fuzziness complicates efforts to unify progressives against him.

Nevertheless, a ranked-choice election demands strategic thinking on the part of candidates as well as voters. Those who want New York City to prove that ranked-choice elections can improve democracy should do their part to encourage such strategic thinking.

No election system is foolproof. Only voters can prevent the election of a bad candidate. New York City didn’t even have runoffs before RCV, so an unqualified celebrity could still become mayor on the basis of mere plurality support—just as Jesse Ventura became governor of Minnesota with just 37% of the vote and Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California with 48.6% of the vote. (You may have also heard about this guy named Donald Trump; you won’t believe the electoral system that got him elected.)

But ranked-choice voting has been sold as a way to make elections work better, not be as bad as before. It may not be fair to judge RCV based on one mayoral election, but New York City is not just any mayoralty and Yang is a very untested newbie

That’s why if ranked-choice voting is going to keep gaining momentum, it’s up to you, New York, New York.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.