Eric Adams and Glenn Youngkin have little in common, other than how they won their new jobs.
Adams, the Democratic mayor-elect of New York City, and Youngkin, the soon-to-be Republican governor of Virginia, earned their party nominations through ranked choice voting, an increasingly popular format for U.S. elections.
Their victories bolstered a core argument that ranked choice voting advocates have been making for years: Allowing voters to cast ballots identifying their second and third choices (and so on) rewards candidates who work to broaden their appeal while weeding out polarizing figures.
The moderate Adams, for example, prevailed over rivals who ran with support from national progressive organizations. Youngkin advanced without attaching himself too snugly to former President Donald Trump, who lost the state by 10 percentage points in 2020. A process once seen as too confusing or too liberal to gain mainstream acceptance is now turning centrists and conservatives into believers.
“A lot of people said, ‘Let Glenn be Glenn’” in the general election, Michael Ginsberg, a member of the Virginia GOP’s central committee, told NBC News. “Well, one of the reasons they were able to let Glenn be Glenn was because he didn't have a six-month primary where he was getting beat up from one side about not being the true heir to Donald Trump and getting beat up on the other side for being too close to Donald Trump.”
Ranked choice voting, also known as RCV or instant runoff voting, first caught on in left-wing enclaves like San Francisco and Ferndale, Mich. Three years ago, Maine became the first state to adopt the format for federal and statewide elections, including the 2020 presidential contest. In 2021, a record 32 cities used it, including 20 as part of a pilot program in Utah, according to FairVote, a nonpartisan group that champions the process. Voters in five other cities approved ballot measures to implement RCV in future elections.
“Nothing is ever perfect, but I think things went as well as I would have hoped, and I think that voters showed they appreciate the system,” said Rob Richie, FairVote’s president and CEO. “I think there's every reason to build from this to a lot more uses of it going forward.”
Alaska — where voters last year approved a move to nonpartisan primaries that send the top four vote-getters to ranked choice general elections — will offer another spotlight in 2022. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican up for re-election, faces a Trump-endorsed challenger in Kelly Tshibaka. The open primary should help Murkowski advance, and the ranked choice format could benefit her if enough Democrats and independents pick her as their second choice.
The precise rules of ranked choice voting vary by jurisdiction, but the basic idea is that voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no one receives a majority of first-choice votes on the first count, the election moves to an instant runoff. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and ballots cast for that candidate are recast for the voter’s second choice. The process repeats until a candidate reaches a majority.
RCV proponents say the approach is more inclusive and representative. More candidates could run without being dismissed as a “spoiler” siphoning votes from others. Elections won by a plurality, or less than 50 percent of the vote, would be history. And the nasty tenor of politics might improve if candidates realize that attacking each other or playing to the base could cost them second- or third-choice votes.
Progressives embraced the system early on as a way to align with each other and theoretically box out establishment-friendly candidates. But several recent and higher profile elections have rendered a different reality.
In Maine’s 2018 Democratic primary for governor, activist Betsy Sweet and Mark Eves, a former Maine House speaker, joined forces on the left flank of a crowded field, encouraging their supporters to rank them first and second. Both were eliminated before the final round,and a moderate, Janet Mills, won the nomination and, eventually, the general election. (In Maine, ranked choice voting is not used in the general election for governor.)
“I didn't win,” said Sweet, who also ran unsuccessfully in Maine’s Democratic Senate primary last year. “But I know that we moved the needle in both races a lot to more progressive things.”
One of the most energizing progressive causes of the last two years — police brutality against people of color — failed to swing this year’s nonpartisan ranked choice mayoral election in Minneapolis, where tensions remained high after the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Democratic incumbent Jacob Frey, who opposed a push to overhaul the city’s policing practices, beat two progressive rivals who aligned with each other and urged voters not to rank him on their ballots.
New York’s mayoral primary was especially disappointing for progressives. A sexual misconduct accusation against city Comptroller Scott Stringer and a staff revolt within Dianne Morales’ campaign weakened two of their most promising candidates and complicated the ranked choice endorsement strategies of outside progressive groups. Maya Wiley, a civil rights lawyer and former MSNBC contributor, consolidated some left-wing support in the closing weeks but finished third.
Some progressives are skeptical that the format favors any party or ideology.
“In New York City this year, progressives and conservatives won under ranked choice, each race determined by myriad specific dynamics,” said Joe Dinkin, campaigns director for the Working Families Party, which ranked Stringer, Morales and Wiley as the top three candidates in the mayoral primary before withdrawing support from Stringer and Morales. “Under ranked choice voting, just like in the more traditional … system, the winner is generally the candidate who can make the broadest appeal to the largest share of the electorate.”
But progressives like Sweet in Maine, who now works with Democracy for America, a group that endorsed Wiley in New York, remain optimistic about ranked choice voting. They brush aside the failures, asserting that as candidates and voters become more familiar and comfortable with the system, progressives will be positioned to benefit.
“Big picture, ranked choice voting is a great opportunity for progressives,” said Yvette Simpson, Democracy for America’s CEO. “I think we've got a lot of work to do in teaching candidates how the system works, so they can figure out how to navigate it.”
Republicans in Virginia and elsewhere are now more eager to navigate it, too. One GOP operative with deep Ohio experience pointed to that state’s upcoming Republican Senate primary, which has digressed into a multi-candidate brawl for Trump’s endorsement. Given the crowded field and the state’s traditional election rules, the race is likely to be won by a small plurality.
“Core GOP voters want a serious conservative fighter to back, not a clown car of crazy,” said the operative, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about intraparty dynamics. “Another prime example of where instant runoff voting for the GOP primary, and the general, would make a hell of a lot of sense.”
In Georgia, overseas and military voters can now vote by ranked choice under a measure included in a sweeping elections bill signed into law this year. Democrats opposed the bill, which restricted other voting practices and narrowed the window for runoff elections held when primaries fail to produce a majority. (Democrats won two Senate seats in runoff elections in January, before the bill passed.)
State Rep. Wes Cantrell, a Republican who pushed for the ranked choice provision, has introduced legislation to expand it to other Georgia elections — a move that would eliminate runoffs altogether. But he doubts anything will pass in time for next year’s elections, which could be particularly polarizing. Trump has endorsed GOP primary challengers to Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both of whom refused to cater to Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
“Maybe RCV would force candidates to speak the truth and have honest dialogue,” Cantrell said. “I don't know if it would or not. We can all dream, though, right?”