NYC’s ranked choice voting needed a Bhutan-style test run

Let’s try again.
Let’s try again.
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
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Elections can be very confusing, and nobody knows it better today than the New York City Board of Elections (BOE).

The city’s first election conducted through ranked voting (where a voter can choose up to five candidates in order of preference), is turning out to be a nightmare: The BOE announced last night that it had accidentally included 135,000 test ballots in its counts. To correct the mistake, voting machines will have to generate a new tally of cast votes, which will then need to be recounted.

It might be a while before New Yorkers find out the results of the election, which ended on June 22 and included, most notably, the Democratic mayoral primary. Politicians and citizens are bound to be rather frustrated, and likely to associate the fiasco with ranked voting itself. And the way ranked-choice works is indeed fairly complicated: A candidate who gets the most first-choice votes, but not an absolute majority, is not guaranteed to win. Another candidate with fewer first-choice votes but many more second-choice votes could take over the election.

But faulty results don’t show the system is unreliable, or too confusing—just that it needed a bigger test. New York City needed a whole mock ranked election to familiarize itself with the concept. It wouldn’t have been a first: Bhutan did it over a decade ago.

A better way to learn what is ranked choice voting

In 2007, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan held a very practical exercise in democracy. A year prior, against the will of its people, its fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck ordered that the country, until then an absolute monarchy, become a democracy.

In order to familiarize Buthanese citizens with voting, two mock elections were held. In the first pretend election, people learned the ins and outs of election booths, ballots, making choices, and results. They had four parties to choose from, all different colors of the same icon, the Druk, a thunder dragon. Two made it to the following round, when voters cemented their learning of the process by picking a winner between the Druk Yellow Party and the Druk Red Party.

The Druk Yellow Party won (yellow is the color of the Bhutanese monarchy).

So when the actual first elections came around in 2008, people knew how to vote. This doesn’t mean the elections were easy—even in a country determined to pursue Gross National Happiness above all, there are political tensions. But the proceedings were clear.

Perhaps NYC didn’t need a full practice election. But it would have been helpful for people to familiarize themselves with rank voting. They might have encountered parts of it that weren’t clear and had a chance to ask questions, or realized they needed to know more about certain candidates; they might have even prepared for a long wait on results.

Of course, that doesn’t guarantee there would not have been mistakes with the test ballots (after all, machines get tested for every election), but perhaps it would have been just a disastrous dress rehearsal. After which, the show has a much higher chance of being a success.