For the first time in a New York City mayoral election, Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) will be used when voters go the polls later this year. Now, RCV is already used in Maine and about twenty cities around the country, including San Francisco and Minneapolis. But in June, New York will be the largest American electorate yet to utilize this voting method. Other localities will quickly follow. Over the next couple of years, RCV will debut in a dozen other cities as well as the state of Alaska in 2022.
In an RCV election, voters are invited to rank the candidates in the order of preference. If a candidate receives more than half of the first choices, that candidate wins – just like in any other election. But if no one reaches more than 50 percent of voters’ first choices, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. The voters who picked that candidate as their first choice will then have their votes transferred to their second choice. The elimination and transfer process continues until a candidate reaches a majority.
In a multi-person race, it’s tough for a candidate to win a majority outright. That means that voters’ second round choices, and sometimes third, are critical. RCV elections require a different way of thinking. Instead of simply coming up with a “win number,” and focusing only on a certain block of voters, campaigns must think through how to build a broad coalition and appeal to voters whose first choice will be another candidate.
With communities across the country embracing ranked choice voting as an electoral mechanism, campaign professionals would do well to look closely at how it plays out on the ground — and the implications it brings for political strategy, coalition-building, and more. Here are a few tips for how to think about campaign strategy in a RCV election:
Watch your tone.
Previous analyses of RCV elections have emphasized the importance of “playing nice” to avoid losing second-place status with any other candidate’s base of support. Under these circumstances, negative attacks could serve to drive a wedge between groups of supporters — scrambling the all-important coalitions that ranked choice voting emphasizes.
Educate your supporters.
Even with the very best voter education programs, ranked choice remains a complicated and unfamiliar system for the general public. Many voters may stick to just marking their first-place choice due to unfamiliarity — or incorrectly vote for the same candidate multiple times, spoiling their ballot. If they don’t rank, the down-the-line effects of ranked choice may be diluted. Make sure your campaign provides instructions to voters for how to rank choices with ballot examples.
Rethink your endorsement strategy.
Endorsements are no longer a winner-takes-all competition. Make it clear to the organizations and individuals whose support you seek that while you would love to be their No. 1 choice, you would also be honored to be their No. 2. Successful candidates in RCV systems are those who build broad coalitions and talk to a wide range of voters. That may mean speaking with an organization that has endorsed another candidate, or continuing to engage with community leaders who are supporting someone else. And don’t be afraid to cross endorse. If you and another candidate take up a similar portion of the same political space, cross-endorsing could help you win the second choice votes you’ll need to prevail in the end.
Be ready to wait for results.
Many election boards struggle with delays in counting under the best circumstances, and RCV adds another layer of complexity to the process. In New York City, the first round choices will be announced immediately, but if no candidate clears the majority threshold, voters have to wait until all absentee ballots are received before the ranking and elimination process can begin. That means it’ll likely be at least two weeks after the election before the results for most races are known.
New York City is the latest to implement the RCV system, but it’s becoming an increasingly popular electoral reform nationally. There are active campaigns in states throughout the country to adopt this system, and 30 RCV bills have been proposed across the country so far in 2021, according to Fair Vote, a non-partisan advocacy group devoted to election reform.
While RCV doesn’t change everything in campaigns – about 80 percent of the time, the candidate with the most number of votes in the first round wins – it changes enough that consultants need to think differently about strategy. Smart campaigns will see RCV as an opportunity to connect with more voters, and go beyond the polarizing messages we’re used to seeing and hearing. And that won’t just be good campaign strategy – engaging more voters will be good for our democracy, too.
Laura Tamman is the Founding Partner of Greenlight Media Strategies, a woman-owned political consulting firm based in New York City and Nashville. Follow her on Twitter at @LauraTamman