A narrow victory by a well-funded newcomer in Tuesday’s 10th Congressional District primary has reignited a debate over whether a ranked-choice voting system already adopted for city races should be expanded to all elections in New York.
In the contested 10th congressional race, former federal prosecutor Dan Goldman eked out a victory with 25% of the vote, or just more than 16,600 voters. Trailing close behind was state Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, by 1,300 votes. Rep. Mondaire Jones, and Manhattan Councilmember Carlina Rivera also racked up more than 10,000 votes each, not counting all the absentee ballots. All told, 75% of voters in the low-turnout election, or roughly 48,100 people, wanted someone besides Goldman to win.
And while Goldman may have still emerged in a ranked-choice contest, some voters lamented not being able to rank their candidates, as they did for the first time in last year’s municipal elections. The outcome also reignited calls from advocates to bring the system to more New York elections.
“Not only did we split the vote between progressive candidates, we also split the vote between three candidates of color,” said Julia Muench, the interim director of the nonprofit Ranked Choice New York, which aims to bring the voting system throughout more of the state. “The winner was the white male and moderate to boot.”
New York City voters approved a ballot initiative in 2019, to allow ranked-choice voting for citywide and council races. Election reformers argue that the system helps limit negative campaigning and gives less conventional candidates a better shot. The change triggered unusual alliances between rivals in the 2021 mayoral race and, due to the sheer quantity of city races, proved to be one of the largest experiments in ranked-choice voting in the country.
The system drew criticism from some city political leaders — including then-candidate and now-Mayor Eric Adams — who said it would disenfranchise Black and Latino voters. And it still faces opposition from state conservatives, who argue that there’s no need to change a system that’s been in place for hundreds of years.
In the vast majority of races, the first-place candidate before ranked-choice tabulations solidified their leads when ranked votes were counted — as was the case for Adams.
Though in some rare cases, a second-place candidate amassed enough ranked votes in subsequent rounds to surpass the original front-runner. That happened in two out of dozens of City Council races last year, and has taken place in around 3.8% of the 375 ranked-choice elections studied by the group Fair Vote, which documents them nationwide.
A scenario in which voters ranked candidates like Niou, Jones, and Rivera would have avoided the need for them to cast a ballot for someone they didn’t prefer in order to stave off a win from someone they were trying to block — a scenario multiple voters recounted to Gothamist.
But the system only applies to city races. Further changes to state law would have to be made by the state Legislature for it to be applied to state or congressional races.
“States have the power to conduct their own congressional elections in the way that they choose,” said Deb Otis, a researcher with Fair Vote. Maine has ranked-choice voting in place for primary and the general congressional races. Alaska uses the system just in the general congressional elections. Republicans in Virginia have used ranked-choice voting to select some congressional candidates in their party nominations.
“In a crowded primary, ranked-choice voting is really needed to help parse voters’ true intentions,” Otis said, offering the 10th Congressional District race as a textbook example of a fragmented vote.
She pointed to another recent congressional race in Detroit, where eight Black candidates split the vote, handing victory to Indian American businessman Shri Thanedar. The outcome means Michigan’s 13th Congressional District won’t have a Black representative for the first time in more than 50 years.
Thanedar, currently a representative in the Michigan state house, poured millions of dollars of his own money into the race, similar to Goldman. Goldman, the heir to the Levi Strauss fortune, sunk at least $4 million into his campaign.
As voters cast ballots in the 10th Congressional District on Tuesday, several told Gothamist about the strategic machinations they were working through ahead of casting their ballots, rather than simply picking their favorite candidate from the crowded field.
“It was a very hard decision,” said 72-year-old urban planner Cathy Herman, who cast her ballot in Park Slope Tuesday morning. Herman said she wanted to pick Jo Anne Simon, an assemblymember from Brooklyn, but figured Rivera had a better chance of winning, so she went with her. “There were four or five candidates who I really liked for some of the same reasons. I was trying to be strategic because I didn’t want Dan Goldman to win.”
Another voter, Sabine Horner, 40, told Gothamist about a similar dilemma. She picked Niou over her first choice, Rivera.
“I had to vote for the person that I think is most likely to beat [Goldman] rather than the person I’m most emotionally in favor of,” she said.
State legislatures have mulled the idea of ranked-choice voting in the past. State Sen. Liz Krueger, for example, has repeatedly introduced a more limited ranked-choice voting bill that would have allowed local municipalities to try out the system. Eventually, lawmakers realized the state didn’t need to grant permission to local governments and the bill died on the vine, Krueger said — though she’s open to taking up the issue more broadly during the next legislative session.
“It has been on my mind and I am still a supporter of this model,” Krueger said. “I like the idea, but I want voters to buy into it.”
Krueger described pushback from local boards of elections, when Democrats, who assumed control of the Legislature in 2019, began passing electoral reforms like early voting that had been stalled when Republicans controlled the Legislature for years.
A spokesperson for Gov. Kathy Hochul didn’t return a request for comment.
Muench pushed back, saying that any resistance from local election boards that would have to administer ranked-choice voting could be overcome with funding from the state to implement the changes.
But the idea of changing the way votes are counted in the state is still controversial. Muench said she expected her group’s campaign to bring ranked-choice voting statewide to face political headwinds.
“People who have already been elected under the current system get nervous about changing the system,” she said.
State Assemblymember Michael Lawler, who just won a Republican primary for the 17th Congressional District in the Hudson Valley, sponsored a bill in the Legislature to bar ranked-choice voting altogether. The current winner-take-all system has worked in the state for centuries, he argued.
“I don't know why all of sudden we need to come up with a new way of counting votes,” Lawler said. “If the progressives split their votes, and didn’t unify behind a single candidate, then that's on them. You don't get a second bite at the apple just because you don't like that your candidate of choice didn't win.”