With only ten days until early voting begins, eight Democratic candidates vying to be New York City's chief executive will take the debate stage in person for the first time Wednesday night. It’s a precursor to a first-of-its-kind race in the nation’s largest city. New York has adopted ranked choice voting and election officials say the final outcome won’t be known until weeks after polls close.
It’s a reality some worry will further erode New York’s historically low turnout for city elections.
"We don't know the impacts of ranked choice voting," said Hank Scheinkopf, a longtime New York political consultant. "We do know that when you fool with the voting system, you tend to disrupt behaviors that are learned, you tend to reduce turnout, and create confusion."
When New Yorkers cast their ballots in the mayoral primary, they’ll list up to five choices for the city’s chief executive, instead of checking only one box as in elections past. Ranked-choice votes come into play if no candidate earns more than 50% of first-choice votes, which is probable for the crowded Democratic primary. Thirteen Democratic candidates will appear on the Democratic ballot, while two Republicans will appear on the GOP ballot. Then, vote counts take place in rounds with the last-place candidate eliminated in each round, allowing supporters of losing candidates to shift their support to their other choices. Rounds continue until a candidate has more than 50% of the vote.
The primary is the first major test for the ranked choice voting system that New Yorkers overwhelmingly supported in a 2019 ballot measure. Proponents argue it creates an incentive for candidates to engage with a wider swath of voters, for voters to learn more about a larger group of candidates and for more civil discourse between candidates.
"Now you can't focus on just one borough or just one racial group or just one sector. You really do have to build a citywide coalition," said Rob Richie, the president and CEO of FairVote, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for election reform. "If you're running for mayor, that means you have to find ways to connect and voters have a different incentive to learn about more than just one candidate. You don't just settle."
In late May, the New York State Board of Elections approved software that is expected to speed up the time required to tabulate ranked-choice votes. Still, the New York City Board of Elections President Frederic Umane has tempered expectations, indicating that the final outcome of ranked choices will not be known on election night.
"We are not going to be able to run a ranked choice voting tabulation until about a week after the election," said Umane at a May 25 Board of Elections meeting.
Umane cited counting absentee and affidavit ballots as one reason for the timetable. He also spoke about logistical issues, like uploading vote information from scanners, as another reason for a lengthy wait. Rounds of vote tabulations will occur weekly until there is a winner.
Though ranked-choice vote tabulation will take longer, New York City voting officials expect to be able to provide a preliminary count of first-place votes to the public, inclusive of early voting first-choice votes, for all of the candidates on election night.
"Every time you say there's a delay, it doesn't increase the possibility that you're going to vote, it increases the possibility you say, ‘Why bother? My vote doesn't matter, the outcome of its value will be delayed,'" said Sheinkopf.
But Richie said a delay in results should be attributed to a procedural decision on the part of the NYC Board of Elections and using that as a criticism of ranked voting itself would be misplaced.
"The real issue is not ranked-choice voting, it’s a matter of when New York finishes its process of ballot collection," he said.
FairVote also points to studies that show an increase in turnout with ranked choice voting.
States like Maine and Alaska used ranked choice voting and other major cities like San Francisco, Minneapolis have also adopted the ranked-choice system. The popularity of ranked choice voting is growing. Voters in Austin, Texas, voted in support of it in May and cities and counties across Virginia will be allowed to utilize ranked choice voting for local elections starting July 1.
While many jurisdictions that use ranked choice voting tabulate their ranked-choice votes within 24 hours of polls closing, Richie cited Maine as an example of an area that takes about a week to count and release results of ranked choice votes.
Most candidates have embraced the concept. Maya Wiley, a mayoral contender who is a former counsel to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, was previously a member of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting NYC’s executive board. Ranked choice voting was a part of Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign policy platform. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams initially supported the reform but slammed ranked choice voting late last year claiming it could disenfranchise voters of color and pointing to previous mistakes made by the city’s Board of Elections.
"At this point, we’re feeling OK that the concern is worse than the reality, but it's really important that candidates commit to accepting ranked choice voting elections results, especially given the delay," said an aide to Yang’s campaign who was not permitted to speak openly about the race.
Among the mayoral hopefuls, a few have emerged as serious contenders in the homestretch of the campaign that has been largely overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yang and Adams have widely been considered frontrunners in the race. Former New York City Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia has gained momentum after endorsements from The New York Times and the New York Daily News. Wiley has risen as a top progressive choice after New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s campaign was marred by a sexual assault allegation and former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales’ campaign has faltered after a staff strike accusing Morales of preventing workers from unionizing. Stringer has denied the allegation, and Morales in a statement said she's taken steps to acknowledge issues with her staff.
Early voting begins on June 12 in New York City. Primary Election Day is June 22. New York ABC-owned WABC-TV is slated to host a Democratic Primary Debate on Wednesday, June 2, at 7 p.m. ET.