Campaigning For Second And Third Ranked-Choice Votes Can Be Crucial

[ Posted Thursday, July 8th, 2021 – 15:57 UTC ]

New York City finally has a presumptive mayor. That would be "mayor-elect," but since this was just the primary election, it isn't technically true (while being de facto true, since the Republican doesn't stand a chance in the general election). It took two weeks for the results (which still aren't completely final and certified) to be announced, though, which was due to the new "ranked-choice voting" (R.C.V.) system for citywide elections. I've long been a proponent of all kinds of experimentation to make the American voting system work better, and have already seen how ranked-choice voting can work just fine (or, to put it another way, that's what my far-flung correspondents in Maine and San Francisco tell me). So I wanted to take a deeper dive into the results, after the dust has settled a bit.

The biggest conclusion, after examining the full data, is that the multiple-choice nature of the ballot is far more important than most voters -- and most candidates -- have realized. Because it was the second, third, fourth, and fifth choices which proved decisive, in the end. There is a clear lesson for politicians campaigning in such contests: convincing voters to make you their second (or third, or whatever) choice might just be your key to victory. Of course, convincing voters to make you their first choice is always going to be the real focus, but some strategy for corralling voters who don't put you first is also of critical importance and should not be neglected.

New York City's new R.C.V. scheme is a bit complicated. There were 13 candidates on the ballot, as well as the option to write in someone else. But voters could only vote for their top five choices. After the first round of tallying the vote, all the write-in votes were eliminated for the second round. But from that point on, it wasn't quite as simple as "each round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated for the next round." Apparently there were other criteria used, because while in Round 2 only one candidate was eliminated, but in Round 3 four candidates didn't make the cut. Round 4 only dropped one candidate, but then Round 5 dropped three. I admit that I haven't bothered to scan the new election law with sufficient detail to explain precisely why this is.

The cut for Round 3 seems pretty obvious, since all candidates with less than one percent of the vote were eliminated. But Round 5 saw candidates with anywhere from 3.0 percent to 6.1 percent eliminated. Perhaps the rule at this point was "candidates with less than 10 percent are dropped"? That's just a guess, but from the data it would fit. Again, the classic model for R.C.V. is to only eliminate a single candidate each round, so with the write-ins (taken as a group) going first, this would have meant a total of 13 rounds of tallying, with Round 12 between the top three finishers and Round 13 being the final standoff between the top two. But New York City's election only went up to Round 8, with multiple candidates being dropped in two of those rounds.

The final rounds are the most important, of course. Round 6 was between the four top candidates: Eric Adams, Maya Wiley, Kathryn Garcia, and Andrew Yang. The New York Times has an informative graphic which shows in more detail what happened in these last few rounds (the color bar chart immediately under the heading: "Unofficial Ranked-Choice Results").

This chart shows the relative votes each candidate picked up from the eliminated candidates. So in Round 6, Adams came in first with 34.7 percent, Wiley came in second with 26.1 percent, Garcia came third with 24.4 percent, and Yang was eliminated since he only garnered 14.8 percent. Worth noting: in the first six rounds, the order of the top four candidates did not change at all. They each slowly picked up votes from the eliminated candidates, but these votes seem to have been fairly evenly distributed among all four. They were evenly-enough distributed that no change in ranking happened, at any rate.

But then there was a big change in Round 7. And it was at least partly due to an unofficial alliance that Andrew Yang had formed with Kathryn Garcia. When two candidates in a multi-candidate race form such alliances, they both essentially campaign on the same two-part message. The first part of it: "I want to be your first choice, but if I can't be that, then please put me down in second place." And the second part, which is almost even more important: "Even if you do mark me down as your first choice, I would strongly encourage you to put this other candidate I have allied with as your second choice, because he/she is telling voters the same thing -- for all his/her voters to put me down as their second choice. So it'd really just be returning the favor. This increases the chances of one of us winning, because we both think that that third candidate we're running against is the wrong choice for the city." This Garcia/Yang alliance was formed in opposition to the candidacy of Eric Adams, and it worked to a certain degree.

The result for Round 6 finally shook up the top of the race. Yang's votes were distributed between the other three candidates, as well as a chunk that became inactive. Inactive votes can happen two main ways: either the voter only marks down one or two choices, not five; or the voter does mark down all five, but all of them have already been eliminated. Of Yang's total votes, about a third became inactive, a third went to the frontrunner Adams, and a third went to Garcia. But only a tiny fraction of Yang voters chose Wiley, which was enough to propel Garcia into second place for Round 7. This was critical, because it meant Wiley was eliminated and Garcia and Adams were the final two candidates in Round 8. If Yang's votes had gone proportionally for all three of the other candidates, it is likely the order wouldn't have flipped and Garcia would have been eliminated instead of Wiley.

Of course, the alliance didn't work perfectly. If it had, then Adams wouldn't have gotten very many Yang votes at all, and the lion's share of them would have flowed to Garcia -- which could have put her in the lead, even in Round 7. This didn't happen -- both Garcia and Adams increased their percentage of the vote by around six percent.

But then the Round 7 results also almost put Garcia over the top. When Wiley was eliminated, a small portion of her votes migrated to Adams, a larger portion became inactive, but a huge number of them went to Garcia. This was enough to get within a single percentage point, but in the end Adams eked out a victory, 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent.

Which leads to an obvious conclusion. If Adams, Garcia, and Wiley had all entered into a three-way pact or alliance, and all had campaigned for the final weeks on "any of us is better than Adams," then one of them (Garcia, as it turned out) might have come from behind in that final round of tallying.

Which is the entire lesson, here. While campaigning to get voters to mark you as their first choice is obviously what all the candidates concentrated on the most, in the late stages of a campaign (when the public's split becomes clearer, even in a crowded race), if all the "not the leader" candidates work together, even a strong lead can be overcome in the final rounds.

As I mentioned, the R.C.V. system is already in place elsewhere in the country (not to mention the rest of the world). And people there are noticing that these alliances are becoming more common and increasingly important. Pitching to voters: "I understand I'm not your first choice, but please consider me for second or third, too" can reap enormous rewards. This has already changed the face of several political races, and it will only become more prominent the more the voters and the politicians get used to the nuances of how the new system can work. It's probably too soon to say whether this will turn out to be a positive overall development or not, but it certainly is an interesting one.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


13 Comments on “Campaigning For Second And Third Ranked-Choice Votes Can Be Crucial”

  1. [1] 
    John M wrote:

    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    "Why is the "worldview" of Americans so restricted to their own country? In the world we live in now, this is a very dangerous way of thinking."

    I thought I would answer this question from an earlier post for two reasons: 1) It's an interesting question and 2) it's relatively easy enough to explain I think.

    The answer basically has 3 parts or aspects to it, all interrelated:

    America is HUGE, insular, pretty much occupies a continent unto itself, and has no recent memory of frequent invasion or a conqueror from outside. This is in contrast to others like France in Europe, or Russia during the 20th century, or recent colonialism during the 20th century, as happened in Africa or to China.

    We're safely tucked behind two oceans, and the only neighbor we interact with the most, Canada, pretty much shares our culture and language so much that we dominate it completely. Add to that, most Americans, their parents, and grandparents have no experience of a world or an America that doesn't involve America as THE superpower, both a military and economic colossus that everyone else in the world pretty much had to treat as mice would treat an elephant. We didn't even have to work hard for the most part to get everyone else to follow the "our way or the highway" philosophy of diplomacy.

    Our worldview as Americans has been restricted to our own country because up until very very recently, we had the complete luxury of doing so without it really mattering to us in one way or another what other people in the world thought or did.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    If the COVID-19 pandemic doesn't start to change that out-dated kind of thinking, then probably nothing will and the pandemic will last longer than it should.

    And, I shouldn't have singled out America - we live in a multi-polar world with north/south and east/west divisions, among others and thinking about how we are all so interconnected and interdependent doesn't come easily. But, the existential challenges we all face have both global and community impacts and so we must all broaden our outlook and change the way we think about and see the world.

  3. [3] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    your larger point is a very good one. the fact of global problems creates the need for problem solving on a global scale, and that goes beyond even climate change. the human race is due for some serious global problems, not least of which is that there will soon be too many of us for the global ecosystem to support. food, water and energy may all soon be somewhat scarce.


  4. [4] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    poet [3]

    Parson Thomas Malthus, probably the world's first 'demographer', warned the world in the late 1700's, that the human population was soon to outrun the world's food supply.

    In your (very recent) lifetime, people used to fret that we were on the verge of "peak oil"

    Based on historical evidence, one could more realistically worry that what we're about to run out of could be common sense.

  5. [5] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    That's the same fallacious argument that oil companies make against man made global warming. Just because early predictions failed to take some factors into account, doesn't make the overall trend not exist.

  6. [6] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    We didn't even have to work hard for the most part to get everyone else to follow the "our way or the highway" philosophy of diplomacy.

    Our worldview as Americans has been restricted to our own country because up until very very recently, we had the complete luxury of doing so without it really mattering to us in one way or another what other people in the world thought or did.

    Oh, yeah? Hast thou forgotten that,

    Of necessity, We the People joined the Soviets in bulking up massively to win our respective chunks of WWII.

    With the Brits, French, Japanese and Germans all trashed to one degree or another that left us and the Soviets the two big kids on the block, especially once they got their own bomb.

    AND their now dreaded Commie Army occupied fully half of Europe!

    We 'Muricans** did NOT repeat the mistakes of Versailles but did the complete opposite with the Marshall Plan, NATO and the UN. We let their Emperor live and got Japan turned around. We stepped up in 1950 for South Korea and they turned out pretty decent, right? BTW, IMO Vietnam War was bad! Korean War was good!

    This has resulted in over 75 years of relative peace with massive improvements to the everyone's poverty, health, food insecurity, literacy and on and on.

    So I can see why 'Murica is The Great Satan.
    */sarcasm off

    **Homework for C. R. Stucki: and just which party was firmly in control of 'Murica when we did all those smart post-war things?

  7. [7] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    But I agree that our size and the varieties of our peoples across 'Murican takes a lot of brain to wrap around. Like us Boomers...too big to ignore, indeed. Plus we're the massive country doing a fabulous yet flawed job in both blending and enfranchising different groups of people. Really, who else on earth (besides maybe Europe) is doing this "melting pot" thing like we are?

  8. [8] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    poet [7]

    OK, but how about the fact that there were maybe 600 million people worldwide in Malthus' time, and hunger and malnutrition were widespread, and now we've got 6 or 7 BILLION and there's damn near no starvation outside of places where war rages.

  9. [9] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:


    Malthus was wrong? But still, we are approaching peak oil but more importantly we are approaching peak phosphorus. As to "predictions" you would have to post the actual paper. Generally speaking, when science "predicts" something, it's more often the fault of bad science journalism than an inaccuracy of the science. Say a paper predicts: "peak oil in 10 to 50 years" or peak oil could be here in as little as 10 years (but could be as far out as 50, stated further in the paper)". Headline of news story: peak oil in a decade!!! Maybe the truth is buried deep in the article, maybe not. Science journalism is boring. To liven it up, the theoretically possible is often pushed in lieu of the probable...

  10. [10] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    K, CRS sho' yo' right, and Malthus was wrong mainly because,

    (A) food production got vastly better, and,

    (B) as people move out of subsistence agrarian existence they have less kids.

  11. [11] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    But Climate Change is real. Only an idiot would believe that humans aren't voluntarily making it worse. We will be known as The Generation(s) that Fucked Earth if we don't change these facts on the ground.

  12. [12] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:


    Malthus was wrong because the only farm implement he'd ever seen was a hoe. He had never heard of a John Deere tractor.

    The guys predicting imminent "peak oil" ten yrs ago had never heard of 'fracking'.

    All the future dire predictions will inevitably suffer from the same problem, because it's inherent in the process.


    Fewer kids cannot even be a meaningful statistical factor in view to the total population increases.

  13. [13] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Technology and innovation have certainly allowed us to fend off the direst consequences of population growth -at least for the time being. There are millions of people starving, but not because the resources don't exist to feed them. As to preventing human population from outpacing global resources, maybe we'll innovate and save ourselves. Or not.

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