Does Ranked-Choice Voting Boost Women and Minority Candidates?

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Maya Wiley

The jury is still out on Ranked Choice Voting, especially after New York City gave the system a bad name during the Big Apple’s mayoral primary. Nevertheless, defeated candidate Maya Wiley, who came in third, writes positively in the Washington Post. She says ranked choice gave her “a real chance at becoming the city’s 110th mayor.” The first 109 mayors were white men joined by one sole African American.

New Yorkers’ citizens voted overwhelming (three-to-one) to adopt the new voting method in 2019. The first-time outcome is the likely election of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a Black former policeman, to the nation’s second most visible elective office. Wiley additionally credits ranked choice voting for having positioned 29 women entering the race for the New York City Council’s 51 seats. Presently there are only 14 women.

Wiley’s take away: Ranked Choice Voting helps elect women and minorities. There is contemporary evidence that RCV does work to elect leaders who more nearly reflect the makeup of their communities. The system, now used in California Bay cities, likely helped elect Mayor London Breed, San Francisco’s first Black woman, and Mayor Jean Quan, Oakland’s first Asian-American woman.

The debate over RCV is certain to take center stage, particularly at a time when voting rights are being threatened. Our very democracy itself has been under concentrated attack from partisan state legislatures engaged in passing laws to suppress the voting rights of minorities. Fueling those attacks is the GOP’s genuflection to the “Big Lie” that voter fraud somehow “stole” the 2020 election from Donald Trump.

The fact that ranked choice voting performed reasonably well in the New York primary was overshadowed by early bungling of that city’s inept Board of Elections. Consisting of two partisan appointees from each of New York’s ten five boroughs, the board has long been riddled with cronyism. Board members, all but leaderless, refused to hire experts to oversee the new computer system. Not only did the BOE ham-handedly release early returns, but later posted numbers that mixed in and counted 130,000 test ballots. It’s obvious that New York’s electoral oversight needs reform.

But back to ranked choice voting. The preferential-voting method has long been used in Australia, Ireland and parts of the United Kingdom. Nationally, two states — Maine and soon Alaska — and numbers of cities and counties employ the method. Nationally the system has support from national leaders like senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Michael Bennet, and Kirsten Gillibrand.

In our state, Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley (D-Seattle) introduced a bill, backed by FairVote Washington and OneAmerica, that would allow local jurisdictions to adopt the system. Her bill drew support from several cities but didn’t make it out of committee. 

Supporters argue it has a number of advantages. The system encourages more civil election campaigns (because candidates want their rival’s second-choice votes), provides increased choice, and results in more equitable representation. Not only does it seem to give a boost to women and minorities, but it also works to reduce the influence of special interests and overtly partisan politics.

Meanwhile opponents deride RCV as “the flavor of the month,” carp about its potential for “gamesmanship,” and say that it will just confuse the voters. Naysayers also cite increased start-up and training costs. Certainly it’s worth noting that Pierce County adopted ranked choice in 2006 and, after one election, repealed the system.

A little closer to home, King County Councilmembers Girmay Zahilay and Jean Kohl-Welles have co-sponsored a county charter amendment on ranked voting. It would give voters a chance to decide on the system in 2022. If it gets to the ballot, we can expect to hear a lot more of the pros and cons. 

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Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and later for the Seattle Times. In 2003, she quit to run for Seattle City Council where she served 12 years. She now writes for Westside Seattle and has been a co-host on The Bridge, aired on community radio station KMGP. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.

5 COMMENTS

  1. I must have missed big time when I was in school. I thought New York City only had 5 boroughs — Queens, Bronx, Staten Island, Brooklyn and Manhattan? What are the other 5?

  2. Bob, my bad. You are correct. For some reason, I stupidly confused the two reps (one D and one R) from each borough and counted 10. I should have known because I started elementary school in two of those boroughs (Bronx and Queens).

  3. So glad to read your report. Julie Kerr did a press conference today in Brooklyn about RCV. Voters overwhelmingly approved it. The NYC BofE needs reform. The reformers like my daughter have big obstacles from incumbents who do not want to change the rules. They have had some success and will keep seeking improvement.

  4. New York City dodged a bullet when Adams squeaked out his final, narrow win in the mayor’s race. Imagine if the uproar if Garcia, the candidate on White Manhattan elites had won after Adams, with the backing of working class Black and brown voters in the outer boroughs, had finished so far ahead in the initial count. The city’s racial and class divides would have been deepened, quite possibly generating a serious backlash. Particularly because RCV meant that it took weeks after the election to determine the final outcome (though why it took so long is probably more a function of the incompetence of the NYC BOE than anything else).

    Ranked Choice voting sounds great on paper, particularly to movement progressive activist types. Much less so in practice. At a time when the public is increasingly skeptical of institutions, it’s complexity and unpredictability is likely to undermine voter confidence and breed anger and cynicism when initial results are overturned. It’s a bad enough – and trendy enough – idea that honestly I’m surprised we haven’t adopted it yet in Seattle.

  5. I disagree with Sandeep: RCV only is complicated for the first few times its tried–because it’s new. And if, as in NYC, election authorities mess up and don’t have properly programmed computers. Cities all over the country (and the State of Maine) use it successfully–so does the US military for overseas ballots. It usually results in more civil campaigns and moderate candidates (also Indepenents) getting elected–because the candidates all want to be every one’s second choice. Can it be gamed? Yes, I read (in an anti-RCV post, so may be wrong) that in some town a gang of lefties campaigned as a ticket and urged all their supporters to mark one of the others as #2, so one of them won. Be interesting to see models run for Seattle Mayor. Someone in the WA state legislature has repeatedly blocked passage of a simple bill to give municipalities the option of trying RCV, but there’s hope for its passage next year (it did get approved in two House committees this year). Let’s hope it at least gets a tryout in WA, which in other respects has one of the most-reformed voting systems in the country.

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