NYC Mayoral Election Baffles Voters With City’s Revival at Stake

Only days ahead of a critical election to pick the mayor of New York amid unprecedented public health, economic and safety crises, voters are more confused than ever.

The deadly coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout make Tuesday’s mayoral contest one of the most consequential in a generation. But that urgency has collided with the rollout of a new system for the June 22 vote that asks residents to rank five candidates instead of picking just one.

NYC Mayoral Election Baffles Voters With City’s Revival at Stake

Adding to the confusion is a change to the election calendar and an exceptionally large field fueled by a new public campaign financing system that has helped keep lesser-known candidates afloat.

Those changes — in addition to early voting and absentee ballot rules brought on by Covid-19 — were intended to increase voter engagement and restore faith in the electoral system. Instead, they’ve added layers of complexity and uncertainty as a pandemic-ravaged city asks voters to make their choice as summer heats up.

“If this were the September primaries as it has always been before, we would be having a different vibe,” said Rob Richie, chief executive of FairVote, a group that advocates for ranked-choice elections. “There would have been more time for engagement and maybe a little more time to define the race.”

With unemployment double the national average and the number of shootings up 73% in May from a year ago, the city is at an inflection point.

But only about 100,000 people have voted early so far in the Democratic primary, which is all but certain to decide the next mayor since Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-to-1 in the city. That’s a far cry from the 1.1 million New Yorkers who voted early in last November’s presidential race, when a charged electorate flocked to the polls during a second wave of the pandemic and a polarized debate over Donald Trump’s presidency.

Second-Hardest Job After Presidency

Participation in local contests has always paled in comparison to presidential elections. But many organizers and political strategists had expected the momentum from November’s race to carry over to the fight for New York City mayor, which is often referred to as the second most difficult job in U.S. politics after the presidency.

Early voting wasn’t enacted in the state until 2019, so the last competitive New York mayoral race, in 2013, didn’t have it. That race drew more than 700,000 primary voters. There was also a limited number of absentee ballots in 2013 -- around 18,000 -- compared to the 200,000 ballots that were requested for this primary after rules were relaxed because of Covid.

“In the throes of Covid with no end in sight, I was anticipating we’d see a 30% jump in voters driven to the polls,” said political strategist George Fontas, who commissioned a series of polls throughout the race. “But we’re in a different place now.”

Fontas still expects turnout to surpass the election in 2013 due to population growth but said that voter confusion over ranked-choice voting and the number of candidates remains a real issue. Half of likely voters said they were undecided in a May 15-19 poll he commissioned from Core Decision Analytics. He didn’t conduct polling during the 2013 election, but a similar poll conducted a month out from the election by Marist found just 12% of likely voters said they were undecided.

Former sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang both trailed Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams in an Emerson/Pix11 poll released Thursday, in which 23% of respondents said Adams would be their first choice. Civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley got 18% in the June 15-16 poll, Garcia got 17% and Yang got 14%. The margin of error in that poll was 3.6 percentage points, meaning it is very close at the top.

Brimming Coffers

Part of the challenge for voters is the sheer number of candidates -- 13 Democrats and 2 Republicans-- on primary ballots. The lists are so long they have jokingly been referred to as resembling lengthy CVS pharmacy receipts.

The large field failed to be culled, in part, because changes in the city’s campaign finance program in 2018 enabled candidates to stick around well past their campaign’s expiration date. Candidates now receive $8 in public funds for every $1 they raise, up from a 6-to-1 ratio, giving them more cushion to keep their operations running.

The city’s campaign finance board, which also increased the maximum matchable amount for citywide offices, said this election marked the highest public financing payout in city history.

The program’s expansion was meant to increase the impact of small-donor contributions over interests’ high-dollar donations in a way that would allow more diverse candidates a chance in the race. But the result has also meant low-polling candidates can keep operations going long after sinking in the polls.

Ranked-Choice Voting

Ranked-choice voting was also meant to give power to candidates with smaller warchests and less name recognition. But one side effect is that long-shot candidates end up sticking it out to the end on the hope that even if they aren’t voters’ top pick, they could earn enough second-choice votes to propel them to a win.

NYC Mayoral Election Baffles Voters With City’s Revival at Stake

Come-from-behind wins, though, are rare, happening just 15 times in the 375 ranked-choice elections in the U.S. since 2004, according to data compiled by Fair Vote. Of those, the candidate who was in second place after the first round of tallies ended up winning 13 times and the third-place candidate only twice.

There’s a chance New York could defy those odds, as polls show no candidate with more than a quarter of support in the first round. A Marist College poll this month found that Adams would likely win the first round and eventually the election — but only after 12 rounds of runoff tabulations.

NYC Mayoral Election Baffles Voters With City’s Revival at Stake

With so many contenders, it makes it harder for candidates to cut through the noise. At the last televised debate of the election held this week, the eight Democratic candidates on stage spoke over each other as they struggled to stand out.

And the lack of in-person campaigning during much of the pandemic meant that New Yorkers haven’t had a good chance to get to know many of the candidates.

“Even though the election is happening in the background, so many New Yorkers are dealing with really heavy issues,” said political strategist Tara Martin. “People are struggling with high crime rates, unemployment, hunger, lack of childcare. That leaves little time to prioritize an election with so many candidates to learn about.”

Richie said ranked-choice voting is still the best way forward for the city.

“I am feeling pretty optimistic that people will feel that this was the right decision, there is something more powerful in this when you can say something more than one person.”

The city spent $15 million on a voter education marketing blitz but that wasn’t enough for voters like Jerome Narramore. The 50-year-old author said he found ranked-choice too daunting and just marked his first picks for each race instead of selecting his top five.

“I didn’t do it, I just went single vote all the way down the line,” said Narramore, who declined to say who he voted for in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday. “I think it’s very confusing, they didn’t get the messaging out as to how it actually works for everybody to understand.”

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