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A Better Way to Elect Our Big-City Mayors

With ranked-choice voting, voters are more likely to choose city leaders who have broad support. And it’s a big step toward dialing down the divisiveness of our politics.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio
Ahead of last year’s mayoral elections, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio made a video to demonstrate how ranked-choice voting (RCV) would work if the city were to hold an election for New Yorkers’ favorite pizza topping. An online poll employed RCV, and pepperoni won out.
(New York City Mayor’s Office)
Many of our nation’s largest cities are electing new mayors this year. But there’s a problem: The winners in many of these contests may not have support from a majority of voters. There's a solution that can go a long way toward making elections fairer and more efficient while ensuring our leaders have some level of support from majorities: ranked-choice voting.

Today the next mayor of Philadelphia will effectively be decided in a crowded Democratic primary without a runoff; in the only independent poll of the race, no candidate even reaches 20 percent.

In April, Chicago voters narrowly elected Brandon Johnson in a runoff featuring candidates with  two sharply distinct visions for the city who advanced after other contenders split the vote in a nine-candidate primary. Denver voters advanced Mike Johnston and Kelly Brough to a June runoff from a 17-candidate field; each carried less than 25 percent. Houston this fall faces its own fractured 12-candidate mayoral contest.

The large candidate fields in Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver and Houston give voters lots of choices. But when a dozen people seek the same office, the winner can emerge with as little as 15 percent of the vote. Our current election rules make it difficult for leaders to claim a mandate and a city to come together.

Take Chicago, where a preliminary election narrowed the field to Johnson and Paul Vallas, who advanced with just 22 percent and 33 percent, respectively, and were arguably the leftmost and rightmost candidates in the field. Voters had to endure another five weeks of toxic campaigning. The Denver field was even more fractured: More than half of the voters backed candidates other than the two who advanced. It’s a real possibility that today 80 percent of Philadelphia voters will choose someone other than the winner.

It’s not just unrepresentative outcomes. Voters are forced to vote strategically instead of choosing their honest favorite. Potentially ground-breaking candidates drop out instead of splitting the vote or playing spoiler. And in Chicago, Denver, Houston and other cities with runoffs, voters also have to come back to the polls a second time, instead of picking a mayor in just one election.

Ranked-choice voting is a proven fix to all these problems. The largest cities in seven states, from New York City to Minneapolis to Salt Lake City, elect their mayors and city councils with RCV. Most do it in one election, where turnout is highest and voters can assess the full field.

Instead of choosing just one candidate, voters rank them in order of preference — first, second and so on. If one candidate gets a majority of first choices, that candidate wins. If not, the race goes to an “instant runoff” that identifies a majority winner. If your first-choice candidate doesn’t have a shot at winning, your vote simply counts for your highest-ranked candidate who does. No more strategic voting or vote-splitting: If your favorite candidate has a chance, your vote stays with them. If not, your vote won’t play spoiler — it will simply count for your next-favorite choice.

And fewer expensive, divisive runoffs: Instead of going back to the polls to express your preference between the finalists, your vote will just end up counting for the finalist ranked highest on your ballot. Even if a city opts to keep a runoff, voters can have better choices by using RCV to narrow a large field to four or five candidates and then using it again to pick a majority winner.

As for those mudslinging campaigns? RCV won’t end them, but it rewards candidates who run more positive, issues-focused campaigns — after all, it’s better to get second choices from your opponent’s supporters than to tear your opponent down. Winners in RCV-decided contests often earn a high ranking from 70 percent of voters.

RCV is growing quickly across the nation, including use in two states and dozens of cities and counties. Voters say they like it. More women, first-time candidates and candidates of color run for office in RCV contests — and win. Chicago and Denver’s runoff finalists, as well as Philadelphia’s major hopefuls, are among a slew of this year’s mayoral candidates who back RCV.

The future of great American cities shouldn’t be decided by the failings of our antiquated election methods. Voters should feel empowered when they leave the ballot box, not stuck with a candidate they don’t really like. These things are possible with ranked-choice voting.

Rob Richie is the president and CEO of FairVote, a nonpartisan organization seeking better elections for all.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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