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In crowded race for Philly mayor, ranked-choice voting makes sense

It’s not quite 2023 yet, but next year’s mayor’s race already has 10 candidates. Five City Council members, a judge, a state representative, a businessman, a pastor, and a city controller all hope to command enough of the vote in the Democratic primary to eke out a plurality and win the nomination — which in Philadelphia is tantamount to winning the election.

It is likely that none of these people — or others who may still join the race — will win a majority of the vote. That means the next mayor will likely be selected by a sliver of the Democratic primary electorate, itself only a fraction of the city populace.

We don’t have to wonder too hard what that might look like, since Pennsylvania Republicans went through similarly crowded, mismanaged primaries earlier this year, with disastrous results.

» READ MORE: Why did Republicans wipeout? They gave voters an easy choice. | Editorial

Nine candidates vied for the gubernatorial nomination and one of the least electable, Doug Mastriano, emerged the winner with less than half the vote — 43%. In the U.S. Senate race, the primary vote was even more fractured as Mehmet Oz narrowly won the approval of less than a third of GOP voters — 31.21%. It was enough to get him the nomination over candidates who may have proved more electable.

Electability will not be a problem for whichever Democrat wins in May. The city has elected Democrats to the mayor’s office every four years since 1951, and next year will be no exception. Even if Democrats nominate the most extreme candidate (in any direction) they will unite enough to place that person atop city government. Consider 2017, when 38% of the primary vote was enough to make Larry Krasner district attorney.

But electability aside, there is still a problem of legitimacy. Primary elections, as I’ve written before, don’t really serve their intended purpose: selecting the candidate that best represents the typical party member. With 10 candidates on the ballot (and possibly more to come) the element of randomness rises precipitously. It’s not just that the nominee might not represent independents, Republicans, and third-party members — the candidate may not even be all that popular among Democrats.

Republicans solved their primary electorate problem in Virginia by holding a convention in 2017 to nominate candidates. Conventions have the advantage of allowing people to talk to each other and come up with compromises, rather than casting a single vote and hoping for the best.

The leading candidate, Glenn Youngkin had the support of only a third of convention delegates on the first ballot, but when each successive last-place finisher was eliminated from the ballot in the rounds of voting that followed, it allowed the delegates to think about where to shift their support. In the sixth round, Youngkin claimed a majority, and with it the nomination. He might not have been every delegate’s first choice, but his nomination did represent a kind of consensus among party members.

» READ MORE: Youngkin wins Virginia governor’s race, jolting Democrats

This is how we used to nominate most candidates for office, and how many countries around the world still do. But another option that has risen in popularity is ranked-choice voting. New York tried this for the first time in 1936 but repealed it in 1945. The city brought it back in its most recent mayoral election in 2021, when 13 Democrats ran for mayor.

The New York Times explained the new system: “Instead of casting a single vote for a single candidate, voters in a ranked-choice system select a set number of candidates in order of preference. In New York’s mayoral primary, voters will be allowed to choose up to five.” If no candidate has a majority on the first ballot, the lowest vote-getters are eliminated and the secondary preferences on those ballots are distributed to other candidates. Eventually, the pool of candidates gets whittled down to two, and then to one.

It’s something like having a convention, only all in one vote — that’s why this system is sometimes called “instant runoff voting.” Opponents of the idea say it is too complicated, but ranking candidates one through five or even one through 10 does not take much effort — people list their favorites all the time in other venues. And while the counting takes longer, that is also not something new to our political process.

New York City is not the only place to use ranked-choice voting. Maine and Alaska do, too, and Nevada adopted a similar system by referendum last month. It makes especially good sense in primaries: In a general election, many partisans would not even give a last place vote to a member of the opposing party, but in a primary, voters often would be happy with any one of a number of candidates from the same party.

No process is perfect, but a consensus choice would ensure that Philadelphia has a mayor who represents more of the people.

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