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OPINION

The glorification of ranked-choice voting

Some races might have gone differently had ranked-choice voting been in place — but not necessarily in the direction progressives would like.

Eileen Ryan campaigns for ranked-choice voting in costume, Oct. 31, 2020, in Cambridge.
Eileen Ryan campaigns for ranked-choice voting in costume, Oct. 31, 2020, in Cambridge.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Perhaps it’s not such a liberal panacea after all.

Ranked-choice voting was supposed to be a godsend for self-styled progressive candidates in Democratic primaries, ensuring that they’d be able to beat centrists who would no longer be able to take advantage of liberals dividing their vote.

If the results of the first New York City ranked-choice mayoral election tells us anything, it’s how little terms like progressive and moderate mean on the ground — and how unlikely the voting system is to deliver the theorized benefits for progressives, even as it makes elections better overall.

Start with the theory. Positioning herself as a progressive, Jesse Mermell lost the Democratic primary in the coveted and crowded race for the Massachusetts Fourth Congressional District seat last September by a razor-thin margin to Jake Auchincloss, a more moderate candidate. In her concession video, she said: “If the ranked-choice voting campaign needs a new face, give me a call, guys.”

The idea was raised again after a special Democratic primary election held earlier this year to fill the seat left open on Beacon Hill by former House speaker Robert DeLeo. Jeff Turco, the more conservative candidate, and one-time Trump voter, won the primary with 36 percent of the vote.

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Yes, those races might have gone differently had ranked-choice been in place — but not necessarily in the direction most progressives would like to think.

The prevailing read on those races is that the more liberal candidates split the vote, which left the door open for the more moderate/centrist candidate to win. But assuming that ranked-choice would fix that dynamic — that a voter who supported a progressive candidate as their first choice would naturally list another progressive as a second choice — is misguided, because it assumes a level of ideological rigidity that doesn’t exist in the actual electorate. Indeed, the promise of ranked-choice tends to be overestimated on the left, almost glorified. New York City’s widely watched Democratic primary for mayor — so far, the largest electoral contest decided using ranked-choice voting in the country — showed that many voters are ideologically inconsistent.

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The New York City mayoral primary was called for Eric Adams on Tuesday, after two weeks of delays and a dose of incompetence from the city’s Board of Elections. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and a former New York Police Department captain, surged in the last weeks of the campaign, as the city dealt with a spike in violence, by positioning himself as the centrist candidate with a focus on public safety. Second-place finisher Kathryn Garcia, a former sanitation commissioner who also held more moderate views relative to the field, came incredibly close to winning: Only 8,400 votes separated her from Adams, or one percentage point.

The fact that Garcia almost won, after coming in third during the first round of counting, does confirm one major selling point of the ranked-choice system: that it serves as an antidote for polarization by creating a lane for the consensus candidate, or everyone’s second choice.

But the results also complicated other assumptions: When progressive candidates like Scott Stringer and Dianne Morales were eliminated in an earlier round of voting, it didn’t result in a big shift to Maya Wiley, the leading progressive in the race. Instead, it was Garcia, the moderate, who made the biggest gain in that round.

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Ranked-choice is a more democratic system, for sure. But it’s not a given that ranked-choice would have resulted in electing a progressive like Mermell to represent the Fourth District in Congress, or in electing the left-leaning Juan Jaramillo to the State House instead of Turco.

Another promise of ranked-choice that its supporters often highlight is that it discourages negative campaigning. That was not the case in New York. Nor were there alliances between candidates, until the last weekend before the primary election, when Andrew Yang and Garcia campaigned together and attacked Adams.

Massachusetts voters rejected instituting ranked-choice voting in a referendum last year, but nearly 62 percent of voters in Boston backed ranked-choice, and the city could conceivably adopt the system on its own. Yet if there’s one lesson New Yorkers can impart to Bostonians after their mayoral primary, it might be: Be careful what you wish for.


Marcela García can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.