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Differences in Understanding and Utilization of Ranked Choice Voting

Thu, September 15, 4:00 to 5:30pm, TBA


Some scholars of elections contend that when voters rank multiple candidates via Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), or the Alternate Vote, political polarization may be reduced (Horowitz 2004), with the prospects of mitigating some conflicts in divided societies (Reilly 2018). Empirical work documents that voters view campaigns conducted in US cities under RCV as less negative than voters evaluating winner take all contests in similar US cities (Donovan, Tolbert, and Gracey 2016). Other contend that ranking multiple candidates is unfamiliar and more complex than plurality voting (Burnett and Kogan 2015), and that RCV may "increase information costs and obscure racial group interests" (McDaniel 2016). Unequal levels of understanding and utilization of the election system (RCV) across demographic groups may produce bias in who ends up represented.

New York City used RCV its Democratic mayoral primary elections on June 22, 2021, expanding the range of voters who now have experience with this election system. This presented a new method of voting that some may have been unfamiliar with, and/or challenged by. The 2021 New York City primary represents the most populous US jurisdiction to RCV, with nearly 1 million voters participating. Lack of understanding and potential challenges associated with adopting this new voting system could affect people differently. Given the status of the New York City as America's largest city, and the high profile mayoral contest, the June 22 election received substantial media attention and provides a unique opportunity for using survey research to examine how various groups of voters engaged with RCV.

This study compares results of a random sample opinion survey conducted by Edison Research during the 2021 NYC primary election to results from two previous surveys the authors conducted in several other US cities using RCV. The authors designed questions placed on each of these three rounds of surveys. We are unaware of previous research on this subject that has made use of such a broad reach of jurisdictions using RCV where surveys were conducted. We find higher levels of reported understanding of RCV and ranking of multiple candidates in NYC than in other US cities. There are no systematic differences by race / ethnicity in terms of reported understanding of RCV nor race / ethnicity differences in reported ease of reading voting instructions in NYC, or in other RCV cities. There are not systematic differences between age and education groups in reported understanding in NYC and one other sample, but there are differences in a 2014 sample of California cities.

White non-Hispanic voters were more likely to report ranking multiple candidates in NYC and California, and respondents with more education were more likely to report ranking in all three samples. We discuss the normative implications of these differences. On the whole, however, our search for demographic differences in understanding and utilization of RCV largely produced null results. This suggests fears of representational bias associated with RCV may be overstated.