NYC’s Next Mayor Could Be the Second Choice of Most Voters

More than two dozen people are vying to be New York City’s next mayor. And each wants to be every voter’s second favorite.

For the first time in the city’s history, ranked-choice voting is set to determine the winners of the party primaries in June. Voters will rank five candidates. If no one tops 50%, whoever gets the fewest first-place votes will be dropped. The ballots of those who chose the loser then go to their second choice. A computer continues the tabulation, round by round, until someone wins a majority.

The new system could jolt the shark tank of New York City politics by rewarding an overlooked, low-key candidate not seen as a front-runner.

“Anyone with a good story and a pleasant personality, who’s got a record of achievement could have a good shot winning lots of second-place votes, enough to slip past the others to victory,” said Bill Cunningham, a Democratic political consultant who worked for Governor Hugh Carey, Senator Daniel Moynihan and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Now that it’s more possible, it has to figure into someone’s strategy.”

Some opponents argue that immigrants and ethnic groups may lose influence under such a system, but supporters say cities such as San Francisco and Minneapolis have demonstrated just the opposite.

Yang Factor

The impact of ranked voting on minority candidates is about to be tested with Andrew Yang’s likely candidacy, reported by Politico last week. Yang, 45, was born in Schenectady, New York, to Taiwanese immigrants. In 2013, former city Comptroller John Liu -- who was born in Taiwan -- got just 7% of the vote, coming in fourth in the Democratic mayoral primary.

NYC’s Next Mayor Could Be the Second Choice of Most Voters

Yang’s candidacy could get a boost if many more voters rank him second or third in their balloting. In a Slingshot Strategies poll released Dec. 7, he got more first- and second-place votes than any of 11 announced Democratic candidates.

While the new system was approved last November through a City Charter change that won overwhelming support in a low-turnout election, it’s now sparking a quarrel among Democrats over whether it will discriminate against voters of color and immigrants.

“It foreshadows a dark winter of disenfranchisement,” said the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, which represents 26 of the council’s 51 members.

They contend the system undermines the voting power of immigrants and others who lack the time and resources to follow local politics close enough to knowledgeably rank candidates. And they say city election officials don’t have enough time to properly implement it. “We’re not ready for this,” Adrienne Adams, a Queens Democrat who’s the caucus co-chair, said at a Dec. 10 council hearing.

Ranking Spreads

Ranked-choice voting has been approved in 18 cities around the country -- including San Francisco, Minneapolis and Santa Fe. Five states used the system to tabulate votes this year in presidential primaries or caucuses: Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, Wyoming and Nevada, according to FairVote, a non-partisan group that promotes the system.

In terms of cost, ranked voting may be a wash. It ends the need to spend more than $15 million on run-off elections when a primary election doesn’t produce a clear winner. But “all the money you save on not having another run-off election, you have to spend re-educating voters every few years,” said Craig Burnett, a Hofstra University political scientist who has studied ranked-choice voting for years.

Some good-government groups say the system increases voter turnout and makes campaigning more civil.

“You have to be a consensus candidate -- you must appeal to a larger base to be successful,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York. “Over and over we see negative campaigning diminished because if you take a nasty shot at one of your opponents, their supporters aren’t going to include you among their preferences.”

NYC’s Next Mayor Could Be the Second Choice of Most Voters

For candidates and their advisers, ranked-choice voting creates an endless set of questions without clear answers about strategy. “It has crazy polling implications,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, New York. “It no longer counts as much if you’re most popular. It’s how much you can hold on to a share of popularity.”

Political consultants say campaigns must adapt their strategies to it. They’re not sure how.

“More than ever, politics will become a game of calculations rather than raising issues,” said Hank Sheinkopf, who has worked scores of New York City campaigns for 50 years. He said the change will also reduce the power of unions, which won’t be able to rack up political capital by endorsing just one candidate.

Candidates will be more motivated to venture into neighborhoods outside their traditional base, trying to pick up some second- and third-place votes, said George Arzt, a Democratic political consultant. “I tell candidates, go around and try to be everyone’s first choice, but say ‘If I can’t be your first choice, I’d like to be your second choice.”

The New York race includes early frontrunners such as city Comptroller Scott Stringer, 60, a former state assemblyman and Manhattan borough president, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, 60, a former NYPD captain who organized Black law enforcement officers against police brutality.

NYC’s Next Mayor Could Be the Second Choice of Most Voters

Stringer declined to discuss how ranked voting would affect campaign strategy. Adams, who supported it last year, now says he wants to delay it, concerned that the Board of Elections can’t run the system.

The Republican primary also is scheduled for June 22 using ranked voting, if more than two candidates compete. But the Democrats’ nominee will be heavily favored in the general election in a city where the party’s voters now outnumber the GOP’s by more than six to one.

The second-choice-winner scenario isn’t just a theory. That’s how it played out in Minneapolis three years ago when Phillipe Cunningham, a transgender Black man, was elected to the City Council. He initially came in second, only to win the race when all the ballot preferences were counted.

“Ranked choice voting really helped me as a marginalized person have a voice in this election,” Cunningham said in a news release following the victory. “My favorite thing about ranked choice voting is that it allowed me to build relationships across bases. It wasn’t just ‘either or’.”

(Michael Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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