It's Time for Ranked Choice Voting Nationwide | Opinion

It's one week before primary election day in New York City, and New Yorkers are getting ready to rank. The city has instituted ranked choice voting for local primary and special elections. Instead of casting just one vote for their favorite candidate, voters will select a set number of candidates in the order that they prefer them. The New York City mayoral race will be the first major test of the new system.

It's likely to pass, with flying colors. Ranked choice voting has a number of major advantages—and ones we would do well to emulate across the country.

Take, for example, the fear many voters have that they may be "wasting" their vote should their top choice end up taking away votes from their second favorite candidate, and end up thereby helping the candidate they like least. This problem is instantly solved by ranked choice voting, in which all voters will have the option of ranking their top five candidates.

Moreover, when voters only get to pick one candidate, this means that candidates like mayoral hopefuls only have to focus on turning out their base. They get nothing out of pleasing other candidates' voters, so why bother?

Thanks to the newly instated ranked choice voting, this, too, is about to change. Candidates can't simply turn out true believers and cruise into office with a plurality of voters; they need to win votes from a majority of New Yorkers across the board to make sure they aren't voted down by people who might have them as a second or third choice.

The way it's set to work in New York is, if someone wins 50 percent of the vote in the first round, they will win the race, like in other elections. But if no one crosses that threshold, the last-place candidates will be dropped, and an instant runoff will ensue. This is where second choices come into play; the tallies for second and third will be counted, and the lowest dropped again, until there is a winner.

Some people say this is too hard for voters. It's not. In the ranked choice special elections in Bronx and Queens earlier this year, 95 percent of voters found their ballots simple to fill out. And this number held steady across boroughs and across ethnic groups.

It's an especially useful tool when lots of candidates are seeking the same office. Under the old system, with 13 Democrats seeking the mayoral nomination, the winner might have "won" with as little as 40 percent of the vote, simply by turning out his or her base. Moreover, two or more candidates from the same neighborhood or ethnic background might be pressured behind the scenes to drop out of the race so as not to "spoil" it for someone else.

ranked voting
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 14: People vote during early voting at Erasmus Hall High School on June 14, 2021 in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn borough in New York City. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

With ranked choice voting, every vote matters more than ever before, and it matters to every single candidate.

The benefits we're seeing in New York are true in every locality with ranked choice voting, particularly for communities of color. A study by FairVote proves that candidates of color benefit from this system, and candidates pay no penalty when they run against opponents of the same race or ethnicity. Instead of dividing community support, ranked choice voting gives every candidate, no matter who they are, the chance to be a real contender.

The truth is that the old system made it difficult for voters. With a field this large, we'd all be forced to study often-unreliable polls and vote strategically, perhaps settling for someone we don't really like to try and block someone else.

Some people say, well, what if all five of my choices lose? Then I haven't gotten any choice at all. But of course, that happened before, if your single choice lost. Now you have four more cracks at it.

Ranked choice voting restores power where it belongs, with the people themselves. That's why I introduced legislation earlier this year to have the U.S. Government Accountability Office study ranked choice voting for presidential elections. Imagine being able to rank the vote in a crowded presidential primary, ensuring that we as citizens have an even greater say in deciding who is going to represent us at the highest level of office?

Ranked choice voting isn't a silver bullet that will turn our politics into some Platonic ideal. We still might not love the candidates we get and the choices we have to make. It won't drain all the polarization and toxicity that has accumulated over years and years. And it doesn't mean that your favorite candidate will always win.

What it does is make our politics better and more fair, and this mayoral primary is an undeniable example. There are more candidates of color. There's more engagement with voters. There's more campaigning, in more neighborhoods. There's more opportunity for votes to have more impact. There's less pressure on candidates to drop out ahead of election day.

We are likely to elect the second mayor of color, or the first woman mayor, in our diverse city's 237-year history. And there's no chance that New Yorkers will elect a plurality mayor when a majority of us preferred someone else.

We've got a lot of work ahead of us to fix our politics. This simple fix makes for better elections and more empowered voters. Maybe it's not perfect. We all know that very little in our politics is. But it's a pretty great start.

Ritchie Torres represents New York's 15th Congressional District, the South Bronx, in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The views in this article are the writer's own.