What Happens Next in the New York City Mayoral Race?

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams led the field of 13 Democratic candidates in the primary for New York City mayor, but a new ranked-choice voting system and thousands of unopened absentee ballots mean the counting is far from over.

Here’s what to expect over the coming weeks:

When will we know the winner?

Certainly not before next Tuesday, June 29. More likely, the Tuesday after that, July 6 — and perhaps as late as July 12. Those are the dates that the New York City Board of Elections has said it will run ranked-choice voting tabulations to redistribute votes.

Why hasn’t Adams already been declared the winner?

Adams, a former New York police captain, has a 9-point lead over the second-place candidate, civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley. In any previous election, that would likely be enough to declare victory.

But there are a number of new factors at play in this election that are holding up a final count. One is ranked-choice voting, a system approved by New York voters in 2019, which allows voters to select up to five candidates in order of preference instead of just one. This is the first time the city is using the system for a mayoral race, although it has been used for special elections in city council races.

The other factor is absentee votes, which make up an increasing share of the total ballots during and after the pandemic. More than 86,000 Democratic absentee votes have been received by the Board of Elections but remain unopened. Another 120,000 that were sent out could be counted if they were postmarked by Tuesday and received by next week.

How does ranked-choice voting work?

Ranked-choice voting is sometimes referred to as instant runoff voting. It’s similar to systems that force a runoff election between the top two candidates if the initial election doesn’t produce a majority — but ranked-choice voting makes a follow-up election unnecessary.

The system has different styles in different places, but in New York City voters rank their top five choices in order of preference. The Board of elections eliminates the bottom candidate and reallocates those ballots to their voters’ second preference, and repeats the process for 12 rounds until there are only two candidates left. The candidate with a majority of the votes — both first-choice and transferred from eliminated candidates -- is the winner.

How likely is an Adams victory?

Very likely, but not certain.

A Citizen Data poll sponsored by FairVote -- the ranked-choice advocacy organization that pushed for the new system -- was particularly accurate in gauging first-choice votes. It predicted Adams would get 31.9% of first-choice votes, and he now has 31.7%.

After running a ranked-choice voting simulation, it forecast an Adams win in a final round of ranked-choice voting with 56.7% of the vote.

How could Wiley or Garcia win?

The second- and third-place candidates, Wiley and former city Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, also see a path to victory and have not conceded. It’s rare for a candidate to trail in the first-choice voting but overtake the leader when other preferences are included.

To win, one of them would have to have consolidated support around an anti-Adams sentiment that may not exist in large enough numbers to form a majority.

It would also help if the uncounted absentee votes are significantly different from the Election Day votes. Historically, absentee voters have tended to be older and more educated, but as more people voted absentee during the coronavirus pandemic those votes more likely mirror the overall electorate.

What’s the history of the first-choice candidate losing?

Come-from-behind winners have happened just 15 times over 375 ranked-choice elections in the U.S. since 2004, according to data compiled by FairVote. Of those, the second-place candidate won 13 times and the third-place candidate twice.

An example is the case of Don Perata, a 2010 candidate for mayor of Oakland, California, who had a 9.3 percentage-point lead in first-choice voting and lost in the final round by 2 points.

But Perata was embroiled in a campaign finance scandal and had a low ceiling of support. “Our Citizen Data poll would suggest Eric Adams has been a better RCV candidate than Don Perata,” said FairVote’s Rob Ritchie.

Why did Andrew Yang concede?

The answer is emblazoned on his famous hat: “MATH.”

As of Wednesday morning, Yang had 11.6% of the vote. All the candidates below him had a combined 11.4%. He would need the second-place vote on nearly every one of those ballots just to catch up to Garcia’s 19.5% and make it into the top three. A top-two finish would be even more daunting.

That’s why no candidate finishing fourth in the first-choice voting has ever come from behind to win a ranked-choice voting election in the U.S.

“It was mathematically impossible for him to win. He’s much more realistic than the others; they’re dreaming,” said Democratic political consultant George Arzt, who was press secretary to former Mayor Edward Koch.

What’s the next steps?

By law, absentee ballots cannot be opened until next Monday, and some absentee ballots can be counted if they arrive at the Board of Elections as late as Tuesday.

That means absentee votes won’t be included in the first report of ranked-choice voting. The Board of Elections has promised to provide that first tabulation by the end of the day June 29.

Absentee votes will be included in the results beginning June 6, making it likely a clear winner will emerge by then.

But the results won’t be certified until after July 12. That’s because of a state law requiring the Board of Elections to notify voters who cast absentee ballots if there are defects in their ballot, giving them a chance to “cure” their ballots.

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