First Citywide Ranked-Choice Primary In NYC Saw A Higher Rate of “Exhausted” Primary Ballots

With the New York City Board of Elections expected to complete a manual recount of votes as soon as Friday in one remaining City Council race, and voting experts eagerly await a massive data dump from the first citywide election using ranked-choice voting, there is one data point that can be gleaned from the ballots cast in June: nearly 15% of ballots were “inactive” or exhausted in the final round of tabulation for the New York City Democratic primary for mayor.

This means that out of over 942,000 certified ballots cast, 140,202 voters did not select either Eric Adams or Kathryn Garcia as part of their ranking. People could have selected just one, or up to five candidates. But in the final round of counting, a ballot was considered inactive if it could not be transferred to one of the top two finishers.

That percentage of inactive primary ballots is approximately six points higher than the average for all ranked-choice contests tracked by FairVote which promotes and studies the voting system across the country. It found that, on average, 10% of ballots were inactive in the 132 races for which they have data about inactive ballots.

One common theme among the New York City primary contests with the highest number of inactive ballots: across each borough, the contest with the most candidates that required the most rounds of tabulation also had the highest percent of exhausted ballots.

To fully understand why the ballots were exhausted will require a deeper dive into the full set of data, asking if people selected only one candidate, if ballots were filled out incorrectly, or is this a sign of the learning curve associated with the new voting system? Still, understanding where there were the highest rates of exhausted ballots provides a roadmap of where to look to answer some of those questions.

Under the ranked-choice system, a voter had the option to select up to five candidates in order of preference for each city office in the June 22nd primary election for mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough president, and city council. If no candidate received more than 50% of the vote on the first tally, then the board conducted additional rounds of counting where the lowest placed candidates were eliminated and voters who selected them had their votes transferred to the next remaining selection.

That process repeated, in some cases in up to 15 rounds of counting, until the results came down to two candidates and a certain number of “inactive” ballots. An inactive ballot, also referred to as an exhausted ballot, means the voter did not select one of the final two candidates as part of their ranking and so the ballot did not factor into the totals for the two final candidates.

Proponents of ranked-choice voting note that there will be much more to learn once the full cast-vote record is available, which will anonymously reflect the selections by all voters in each part of the city. The cast-vote record will show how many people opted to rank candidates, where people voted in citywide contests but skipped races down ballot, and so much more.

Detractors have argued that the city did not do enough to educate the public about the system. Some candidates did not help either, discouraging voters to rank more than one candidate, a move that ultimately would hurt the candidate’s chances of winning in a crowded race.

“A candidate saying, ‘you only need to rank me,’ doesn’t help that candidate in any way,” said Rob Richie, the president of FairVote. That kind of messaging sets candidates apart from others, he said, in a way that makes them less likely to receive backup support from losing candidates.

“As candidates embrace ‘RCV culture’ – if only to have a better chance to win — I suspect you’ll see voters rank more candidates,” he added.

Among the candidates to embrace a campaign strategy incorporating ranked-choice voting was Antonio Reynoso, a member of the city council who emerged from a field of 12 candidates to win the Democratic nomination for Brooklyn borough president. Asher Freeman, who worked as an adviser to the campaign, said that the system played into Reynoso’s natural strategy for outreach and governance.

“He was running to be a borough president for all of Brooklyn and all communities in Brooklyn, whether or not they were his core base,” Freeman told Gothamist / WNYC. While Reynoso currently represents a portion of northern Brooklyn, home to some of the borough’s most progressive politics, he campaigned in more moderate parts of the borough because the system encouraged him to build relationships even if it meant being ranked as voters’ second or third choice.

“We may not agree on bike lanes, but maybe they are a waterfront community with real resiliency issues and we can build on that,” said Freeman explaining that ranked-choice voting, “creates that opening to work together that the previous system did not.”