Democrats running for New York City mayor will square off in a crucial debate Wednesday night, but they won’t just be trying to convince voters that they’re the best candidate for the job – being someone’s second, third, fourth or even fifth favorite could be almost as good.
Unlike past elections, Big Apple voters will pick their party nominees for mayor on June 22 using ranked-choice voting, and it could take weeks to determine the winners.
City officials are working to ensure voters not only go to the polls but make the most of their ballots.
“Our campaign is really informed by the belief that New Yorkers face too many challenges, as it is, and learning about rank choice voting should not be one of them,” Laura Wood, the city’s chief democracy officer, told CNN. “We have this plan to reach out to all New Yorkers in the next three weeks and ensure that they understand it, and that they are prepared to make their voice heard at the ballot box.”
Here’s what you need to know about the process.
What is ranked-choice voting?
This will be the first time voters will be able to rank their top five choices in order of preference for mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough president and city council instead of selecting just one candidate for each spot.
The stakes are high. Thirteen candidates are running for the Democratic nomination for mayor, with the winner heavily favored in November’s general election. (Two Republicans are vying for their party’s nomination.)
Supporters of ranked-choice voting argue this allows voters to have more say over who is actually elected, while avoiding expensive and time-consuming runoff elections.
To calculate the winner, the first-choice votes of each ballot are counted. If no one receives a majority of the vote (which is unlikely in such a large field), the candidate with the least support is eliminated from contention, and votes for that candidate are redistributed to whomever the voter marked as their second choice. That process continues until a winner is determined.
Officials with the New York City Board of Elections announced Tuesday they will release the first choices of early and in-person votes on Election Night but won’t start the ranked-choice tabulation process for another week.
Absentee ballots won’t be included then because of New York’s elections law which don’t allow them to be opened until June 28 to give officials time to ensure there are no duplicate votes. Starting July 6, the board will run the ranked-choice count weekly, including absentee ballots that have been validated since the prior round.
As of Tuesday, 152,817 absentee ballots had been sent out by elections officials. Citywide, more than 12,000 had already been returned.
“In order to do this process in the best way, we need to balance the public’s right to know who won the election and the individual voter’s right to cast absentee and affidavit ballots that will be counted and counted in an anonymous manner,” Frederic Umane, the election board’s president, said at a meeting last week.
This expected weeks-long process could have taken much longer. It was only last week that state officials certified the software the city will use to tally the votes. In several special elections held earlier this year, officials had to spend days conducting the ranked-choice tabulation by hand.
While the system is new to New York, it’s been used in other places for years, according to FairVote, an organization that advocates for election reforms. New York City is the largest jurisdiction in the country to adopt ranked-choice voting, but it’s been used for congressional and presidential elections in Maine since 2018. Alaska will begin using it next year.
Almost three-quarters of New York City voters picked ranked-choice voting for primaries and special elections in a 2019 referendum.
Under the old system, if no primary candidate won 40% of the vote, the top two advanced to a runoff.
November’s general election will not use ranked-choice voting.
Educating the public
Despite the idea’s popularity in the referendum, making sure people understand an entirely new method of voting is no simple feat. In April, the city launched a $15 million voter education plan, including advertising and community outreach.
In a statement announcing the initiative, Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to a “full court press to ensure every New Yorker has the information they need to make their voice heard.”
Wood, the city’s chief democracy officer and leader of its civic engagement initiative DemocracyNYC, told CNN the funding allows them to reach every New York City voter before the primary. They are running television ads in 14 languages and has printed materials available in more than 20.
Detractors of ranked-choice voting are voicing their unease.
Hazel Dukes, the president of the NAACP New York State Conference, wrote in an op-ed last month that she was concerned about how the new system might disadvantage Black and Latino voters.
“Studies have shown that a disproportionate number of Black Democrats, particularly older voters, vote for only one candidate, so a Black candidate that finishes ahead with first place votes can ultimately lose if White voters fully avail themselves of the RCV option,” Hazel wrote. “In essence, those votes by White voters would count more than the older Black single candidate voters since the Black voters’ second choices would not come into play.”
Despite those concerns, Dukes wrote that she was committed to helping educate voters about the process to “ensure voters know what to expect when they go to the polls this June.”
Wood told CNN she shared the group’s concerns and is working with them to reach out to communities of color.
“We really want RCV to be something that everyone in New York takes advantage of, not just certain populations,” Wood said. “Along with our partners we are definitely trying to focus in on areas that typically have lower voter turnout and lower rates of participation.”
Outside groups like the New York City’s League of Women Voters are also working to bring awareness about ranked-choice voting to the public. Board member Laura Quigg told CNN that they’re hearing voters concerned about having pick five favorite candidates instead of just one.
“We’re hoping that it will be a positive experience in the end,” Quigg said. “That people can see ‘maybe my first choice candidate didn’t win, but hey look my second or third choice candidate won and so that effort that I put into figuring that out made a difference.’”
In Wood’s experience, once they can reach a voter, ranked choice voting isn’t hard to explain, but many just haven’t tuned back into politics after an election cycle that seemed to never end.
“I think a lot of a lot of voters have sort of 2020 fatigue, if you will and are frankly, still a little traumatized from that election cycle. So, you know, a lot of people just haven’t really been tuning in yet,” she said. “I think a lot of New Yorkers want to participate, but they just need to know about it and they need to know that it’s actually not that complicated.”