Professors Study an NYC Election First

By | June 6, 2021

In New York City’s mayoral primary on June 22, ballots will be cast for the first time using an uncommon—but not unproven—method for choosing candidates: ranked choice voting (RCV). 

Using exit poll data to study voters’ perceptions of RCV’s effects on the race and results will be two Daemen College professors—Jay Wendland and Erin Carman.

Jay Wendland smiling standing in front of a wall

Jay Wendland

The election will be an historic moment in U.S. democracy, as New York City will become the largest municipality in North America to implement this method of casting ballots. 

On June 22, NYC voters will choose up to five candidates, ranking their choices in sequential order by preference—a method “really ideal for eliminating candidates for primaries,” said Wendland, an associate professor of political science. 

The results—and effectiveness of RCV—will likely attract national attention, given that 13 candidates are vying for the Democrat Party’s nomination for the city’s November general election. 

“It’s designed to give people more choice,” said Wendland. “When voters have more choices, they feel more a part of the system and represented well—so it’s been shown to drive turnout.”

Erin Carman

Erin Carman

Whether this will be the case in the NYC primary will be among the questions the two professors will seek answer from exit polling conducted by Edison Research.

In May, Carman and Wendland were awarded a grant from the Unite America Institution and Common Cause New York in support of the research.

RCV: gaining momentum

While not prevalent in the U.S., RCV has been implemented in more than 20 cities in eight states, with San Francisco and Minneapolis having used the method since the mid-2000’s; One state, Maine, has employed the method for all state and federal primaries—and in the federal general. 

“It continues to slowly gain momentum around the country,” said Carman, an assistant professor of social work. “This could become a part of more elections in the future.”

During exit polling, voters will be asked if ranking candidates helped better capture their opinions, or if voters perceived a decrease in negative campaigning, for instance. 

“Since voters can choose multiple candidates, there may be an incentive to not bash one another,” said Wendland. “A candidate might want to campaign more nicely—at least in theory.”

How does RCV work?

If a candidate wins 50 percent plus one (an outright majority) of first-preference votes, then that candidate is declared the winner.  

However, if no candidates achieve this threshold, it triggers a number of additional steps: 

  • The candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated;
  • then, second-preference choices are added to ballot tallies. If this results in a majority for a candidate, the race is over; if not, then this process is repeated—including the elimination of the candidate with the fewest votes in the newest tally—before adding in third-choice votes, etc., until a winner emerges. 

In fields with many candidates, the method attempts to achieve a true majority choice.

“We’ll see if the exit poll data confirms this,” said Wendland. “You never know what the data will tell you.”