Tuesday’s bagels are barely stale and already the conventional wisdom in New York City is coalescing around a mayoral victory for Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and ex-cop whose idiosyncratic politics are matched only by his eccentric personality.
In the Democratic primary election, Adams won 253,000 votes and counting, giving him 32 percent of the vote and a 10-point lead over progressive favorite Maya Wiley. The competence candidate Kathryn Garcia is close behind Wiley in third, with 20 percent of the vote.
At first glance, the results look similar to the primary election that Bill de Blasio won eight years ago. In that race, the lanky public advocate captured just 260,473 votes, or 40 percent of the vote—meaning that the votes of just one in 29 New Yorkers were effectively enough to send de Blasio on his way to a two-term mayoralty.
But the race still isn’t over this time around, because New York City is using ranked choice voting in a citywide election for the first time. And the results so far—what looks to be decade-high primary turnout, shared between 13 different candidates—offer an excellent case study in why ranked choice voting is a great thing. Even if it does take a couple weeks to nail down the results.
Ranked choice voting is a popular electoral reform that allows voters to rank their preferences, creating instant runoffs as votes are reallocated from the least popular options. In theory, it ensures the outcome best-liked by the larger number of people and decreases the chances that a third-party or fringe candidate can play spoiler. In an RCV scenario, voters pick Ralph Nader to make a point—but Al Gore once their man has been eliminated.
So far, RCV has been adopted in a number of races: Democratic primaries in Kansas and Wyoming, municipal elections in cities such as Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Oakland, and statewide in Maine and Alaska.
In the lead-up to New York City’s first citywide RCV election, some observers began to panic. Voters wouldn’t be able to handle it! Celebrity candidate Andrew Yang would use his name recognition to coast through on second- and third-place votes! The wide field made possible by RCV’s spoiler-free elections would sap New Yorkers’ interest; the candidates could barely fit on a debate stage, let alone deliver a comprehensible debate.
Instead, what seemed like a low-interest election seems likely to draw more voters than the 2020 Democratic presidential primary and has surpassed the 2013 mayoral primary in New York City. Yang was among the first candidates to concede, having only won 12 percent of the vote.
New Yorkers didn’t just handle it. They used the system to express a wide and complex range of preferences, using their first-choice votes to send a message of support to doomed candidates. And so the exceptionally qualified Shaun Donovan got 17,000 nods, and the true progressive Dianne Morales, done in by campaign infighting, took in 22,000. Those voters will likely have one of the top three candidates—Adams, Wiley, or Garcia—down ballot.
It would take a bit of a miracle for either Garcia or Wiley to pull enough votes to surpass Adams. The three of them have split the de Blasio coalition, with Garcia taking the left-wing yuppies, Wiley the gentrifiers, and Adams most outer-borough communities of color. (As well as many public housing buildings in gentrified Manhattan and Brooklyn, which are visible islands of Adams support on the electoral maps.)
The better precedent for this scenario might be San Francisco’s 2018 mayoral election, in which voters elected supervisor London Breed. Like Adams, Breed was a Black native of her city who ran to the right of her opponents on issues like development and policing. In the first round, she had 37 percent of the vote, 13 points ahead of her two progressive challengers, Mark Leno and Jane Kim. But when Kim’s voters were reassigned, Leno surged. Breed wound up winning by just a few thousand votes.
Adams’ lead is both smaller than Breed’s and harder to surmount, because his opponents’ voters are an ideological mishmash. Despite his late pact with Kathryn Garcia, for example, Andrew Yang is likely to send voters in Jewish parts of Brooklyn to Adams. Some supporters of Morales and Ray McGuire, the Black former Citigroup executive, may also break the way of the former police captain.
In short, it seems likely that New Yorkers will come away from their first ranked choice election with high turnout distributed to a superwide range of candidates, but with a plurality of New Yorkers getting to register a choice between the top two vote-getters. That would be a win for ranked choice voting.
The other possibility is that either Wiley or Garcia winds up overtaking Adams on the final ballot. When Yang and Garcia formed an alliance in the closing days of the campaign (each asking supporters to rank the other second on their ballots), Adams likened the pact to Jim Crow. His surrogates accused the pair of seeking to disenfranchise Black voters. As things stand now, the second-place challenger to Adams is also Black, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t get ugly if Wiley came from behind to win.
Something like this happened in Oakland 11 years ago when City Council member Jean Quan leapt ahead of frontrunner Don Perata on the strength of second-place votes. Perata’s campaign manager said it was collusion. But the candidate reluctantly conceded and everyone moved on.
That’s not going to happen in New York, where Adams said on Monday, “No one is gonna steal the election from me.” If he loses in the final rounds, expect an all-out meltdown. Would that be a failure for ranked choice voting? On the contrary, it would be the system working just as intended.