As New Yorkers vote in their first preferential primary, in the UK it is under threat

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 25th June 2021

Voters in New York City were able to participate in their first preferential voting (called Ranked Choice Voting or RCV in America) primaries this week, making it the largest-ever American electorate for a preferential voting election.

For those used to UK style political parties, the American party system can be rather confusing. In America’s peculiar quasi-nationalised party system, states often run the primary elections for each party, to decide who their candidates will be in the actual election, and set complicated rules for who is allowed to stand.

Primary voters do not have paid up members in the sense we would recognise – you need to register with the government as a Democrat to take part in the Democratic primary, and vice-versa for Republicans.

In 2019, voters got the chance to change how they pick their party candidates. Preferential voting was put before NYC voters, following a democracy commission – and the referendum passed with nearly 75% of the vote. In meant that preferential voting was adopted at last – ditching First Past the Post for Republican and Democratic primaries.

Counting is now underway for this year’s primaries, but already the vote has seen the biggest turnout in a mayoral primary since 1989. New York is the 22nd jurisdiction in the United States to adopt preferential voting, with that number set to soar to nearly 50 this November.

New Yorkers have certainly embraced this change. Early exit polls of New York’s special elections suggest that 95% of New York voters found ranking their ballots easy and polling indicates that more than half of New York voters may well rank their full ballot when selecting a mayor.

Only two Republican candidates stood, making the republican primary de-facto first past the post and giving a swift victory to Curtis Sliwa. Democrat voters had much more choice though: 13 candidates stood on the Democratic ballot, with Eric Adams favoured to become New York’s second African American mayor.

With so many candidates, a crude one-choice, FPTP election could see the winner move on to the main election after only getting a tiny fraction of the primary vote. Letting voters record more than one choice will help ensure the Democratic candidate is representative of the Democrats of New York City. In other words, far more people are likely to be happy with the result.

The system New York City have adopted is half way between the Alternative Vote and the Supplementary Vote used for Mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioners in the UK. Voters can mark up to 5 preferences with their favourite at number one. If more than half the voters have the same favourite candidate, that person wins the primary and will go on to stand for Mayor. If nobody gets half, the numbers provide instructions for what happens next.

The counters remove whoever came last and look at the ballot papers with that candidate as their favourite. Rather than throwing away these votes, they use those voters’ second favourite candidate. This process is repeated until a candidate has half of the votes, or until there are only two candidates left, The winner is then candidate with the most votes. For voters, it’s as easy as 1,2,3 (4,5).

Here’s just a small sample of exciting coverage of RCV’s rollout in New York City:

We have seen the number of Americans with access to this reform soar just in the past year, including for presidential and congressional elections in two states. Virginia Republicans adopted it for their nomination contests for governor and otherwise state offices this year. The headline of Karen Tumulty’s column in the Washington Post last month fits: “Get used to ranked choice voting – it works.”

Preferential voting has become the US’ most popular and most bipartisan reform idea. Voters want choice here too, but the UK government is threatening to impose First Past the Post on Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners in the UK.

Rather than abandoning the Supplementary Vote here, we should follow New York’s example and increase the amount of candidates voters can show a preference for.

Why even put a limit on it? If a voter has preferences between all the candidates, let them put them down. Instead, ministers seem intent to reduce voter choice – and turn back the clock on democracy. They should think again.

This blog was based on the work of FairVote

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