Talking Points

The capriciousness of ranked choice voting is revealed in NYC

Voting in New York City's Democratic primary for mayor finished a week ago, but the election nonetheless just took a dramatic turn. Allocation of second-choice votes — a key feature of the ranked-choice voting system that New York is using for the first time — has propelled former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia from a distant third place all the way to a close second, only two points behind the leader, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. With approximately 125,000 absentee ballots yet to be counted — more than eight times the margin between Adams and Garcia — a stunning upset is still possible.

Possible — but how likely? As of Sunday, 55,000 of those ballots came from districts that Adams won — a far higher share than went to any other candidate, and a good augury for the current leader. But those absentee ballots will go through the same process of ranked-choice allocation as Election Day ballots — and the Election Day ballots for Andrew Yang and especially Maya Wiley went disproportionately to Garcia (she won 29 percent of the Yang ballots versus 25 percent that went to Adams and 10 percent to Wiley, and 50 percent of the Wiley ballots versus 19 percent that went to Adams). Districts that Garcia won have returned only 39,000 absentee ballots, but the additional 17,000 absentees from Wiley districts and the 12,000 from Yang ones could be enough to push her over the top.

The odds are still that Adams emerges the victor, albeit by a much reduced margin. But the mere fact that a clear Adams plurality on Election Day is going to end as a squeaker should raise eyebrows. That's particularly the case since it's only a squeaker at all because of the order in which candidates dropped out. Until Yang's votes were allocated, Maya Wiley was clearly in second place. His votes put Garcia ahead of Wiley — but only by half a percent. If Wiley had held on to second place, and Garcia's votes had been reallocated instead, far more of them would have gone to Adams than was the case with Wiley's. In the unlikely event, then, that Wiley wins more absentee ballots than Garcia, and comes in second in the penultimate tally, the perverse result will be to throw the election decisively to Adams — even though Wiley's voters overwhelmingly prefer Garcia to Adams.

Ranked-choice voting is supposed to result in a consensus winner that reflects a clear majority preference. The post-election twists and turns of this race should prompt a serious rethinking of that assumption.