How a major election reform is upending the race for New York City's next mayor

Jon Ward
·Chief National Correspondent
·9 min read

New York City is about to put a major election reform under the national spotlight.

For the first time in the city’s history, ranked-choice voting — which has been gaining steam nationwide as a way to reduce political polarization — will be used in June’s primary elections for mayor and other top municipal posts.

There are more than a dozen Democratic candidates running for mayor. But unlike in the past, the winner will need a majority to win, rather than a plurality. That is one of the key provisions of ranked-choice voting. And given that New York City is overwhelmingly Democratic, the winner of the June 22 primary will almost certainly be the next mayor.

“This is one of the most dramatic transformations of a municipal political system in American history,” Evan Roth Smith, a New York pollster who is working for candidate Andrew Yang, told Yahoo News.

New York City Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang speaks at a press conference on January 14, 2021 in New York City. Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang announced his candidacy for Mayor of New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang at a press conference on Jan. 14. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

It’s also a major test for a reform that many hope will bring American politics back from the brink. Proponents of ranked-choice voting, or RCV, argue that political polarization has thwarted public officials’ ability to solve big problems because they are effectively hostages of the most extreme elements of their party, which stymies their ability to make deals and look for compromises. This is in large part because the only elections that candidates often have to worry about are their primaries, which are typically decided by a party’s most strident and radical voters.

Ranked-choice voting upends much of that, especially when there are multiple candidates. In theory, it forces candidates to win by selling a positive vision that appeals to a majority of voters, rather than winning by driving voters away from their opponent through negative campaigning.

That’s because, with RCV, voters rank their top five choices in order of preference. If no candidate gets 50.1 percent right away, then the fifth-place candidate gets eliminated, and all their votes go to other candidates, based on whom their supporters picked as their second choice. That process continues until someone gets above 50 percent.

In 2013, the last time New York saw the mayor’s seat open up, current Mayor Bill de Blasio won the Democratic primary with 41 percent of the vote.

“It used to be if you could turn your people out and get about 41 percent, you could run a city of 8 million,” Smith said. “What happens in ranked-choice voting is if you get 40 percent, you lose.”

Howard Wolfson, who was a deputy mayor in the city during the Bloomberg administration, told Yahoo News he was once skeptical that ranked-choice voting would reduce the amount of negative campaigning. “But as I see it play out in New York, I think it is having that effect,” he said.

“You have this kind of multicandidate free-for-all in which everybody wants to be at least everyone's second choice, and nobody really wants to alienate anyone,” Wolfson said.

Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio speaks during the opening of a vaccination center for Broadway workers in Times Square on April 12, 2021 in New York City. (Noam Galai/Getty Images)
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. (Noam Galai/Getty Images)

Rick Fromberg, a New York political consultant who ran de Blasio’s reelection campaign in 2017 and is now advising former Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan’s bid, agreed. He said the campaign is thinking about how to attract a broad swath of the city’s voters rather than focusing its message and strategy on one or two distinct voting blocs.

“You have to be able to be broadly appealing to people who consider themselves progressives, liberals, moderates — and then across all ages, genders, demographics,” Fromberg said in an interview.

Basil Smikle, the campaign manager for candidate Ray McGuire, told Yahoo News that the former Citigroup executive’s campaign is thinking through how to persuade voters to choose him not only as their first choice but also as their second or third choice.

“This is one big experiment every candidate is trying to figure out,” Smikle said.

The McGuire campaign, which was boosted this month by endorsements from rap legends Jay-Z, Nas and Sean “Diddy” Combs, is also putting a lot of emphasis on “a substantial voter education” effort.

“Voters could be confused by seeing a lot of names and a lot of boxes to check,” Smikle said.

Yang is one candidate who has appeared alongside other candidates at events, trying to position himself as the second choice for some voters.

The use of ranked-choice voting is a recent phenomenon in the U.S. Maine has used it in statewide elections since 2018; Alaska voters approved it last fall and will begin using it in 2022. Cities or localities in California, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan and Maryland have also adopted the practice. And a few more cities in other states — Florida, Tennessee, Virginia and Oregon — plan to use it.

One way it could potentially transform national politics is by making it harder for extreme candidates to win.

New York City Mayoral candidate Ray McGuire speaks during a press conference at the National Action Network's House of Justice to denounce the rise of attacks against Asian Americans on March 18, 2021 in New York City. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)
New York City mayoral candidate Ray McGuire. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

“The mayor’s race in New York City represents the largest rollout of RCV in human history. It sends a powerful signal that this is a normal and doable way to hold elections,” said Lee Drutman, a prominent national advocate for ranked-choice voting who wrote a book about it titled “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop.”

Ranked-choice voting was approved by New York voters overwhelmingly in 2019, with 74 percent backing the reform. It was pushed and promoted by progressives who said part of the appeal was that it would lead to a more representative city government.

“Some have expressed concerns that [ranked-choice voting] will hurt the chances of candidates of color. Not so,” wrote Maya Wiley — now a candidate for mayor — in 2019, before the reform was approved by voters.

Wiley, a progressive activist, is a former chair of the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, which conducts oversight of the NYPD, the largest police force in the country. She argued that ranked-choice voting would help “put power back in the hands of disenfranchised people.”

Sara Lind, a candidate for City Council who has worked to increase female representation in government, got interested in ranked-choice voting in 2016. She persuaded the group Amplify Her, which backs female candidates for office, to have its members use ranked-choice voting when deciding which candidate they would support. Lind also introduced ranked choice at the parents’ association in her child’s school.

Lind is now a prominent advocate for using ranked-choice voting in citywide elections, saying she has pushed to use it “immediately in any setting that was possible.”

The Democratic primary field is diverse, and there are a number of Black candidates, including Wiley, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, McGuire and Dianne Morales, an Afro-Latina former nonprofit executive. New York has had only one Black mayor in its history despite its large African American population. Yang, meanwhile, would be the city’s first Asian mayor.

“Many voters have been saying they would like to see a mayor of color,” said Smikle, McGuire’s campaign manager.

New York City Mayoral candidate Maya Wiley speaks during a press conference at the National Action Network's House of Justice to denounce the rise of attacks against Asian Americans on March 18, 2021 in New York City. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)
New York City mayoral candidate Maya Wiley. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

There are also a number of women running who would be the city’s first female mayor, including Wiley, Morales and former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia.

Morales’s candidacy is an interesting test case for ranked-choice voting. She is the only candidate to actively use the phrase “defund the police” and has proposed taking $3 billion out of the NYPD’s budget and redirecting it to other public safety expenditures.

That may limit her ability to win over a majority of voters, since defunding the police polls poorly and violent crime is becoming more prevalent in the city. But at the same time, the ranked-choice system gives voters who prefer a more progressive candidate to make someone like Morales their first choice without worrying that they’re throwing their vote away. Wiley, perhaps the most left-leaning candidate in the top tier of mayoral hopefuls, could also benefit from ranked-choice voting for the same reason.

Only 11 percent of New Yorkers listed police reform as a top priority in the most recent poll of the race, by Spectrum News NY1/Ipsos, compared with 39 percent who listed “crime or violence” as one of their top concerns. Only the COVID-19 pandemic was a bigger concern than crime, at 51 percent. Reopening the economy, affordable housing and racial justice were also top concerns.

In general, ranked-choice voting has the potential to give an accurate picture of how many voters in the city want a more liberal or more moderate candidate.

So far, Yang — who’s running as a relative moderate — has led in public polling, and has a significant name ID advantage after running for president in 2020. The NY1/Ipsos poll had 22 percent of likely Democratic primary voters saying he would be their first choice for mayor, followed by Adams at 13 percent and City Comptroller Scott Stringer at 11 percent. Wiley was the top choice of 7 percent of voters, followed by McGuire and Donovan at 6 percent and Morales at 5 percent.

Mayoral candidate Eric Adams calls for new measures to reduce gun violence in front of 77 4th Avenue Brooklyn where in broad daylight 51-years old Nichelle Thomas was killed on April 21, 2021. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Mayoral candidate Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Smith, Yang’s pollster, said that when he hears Yang critics complain about his name ID and his status as a kind of celebrity candidate, “to me it means everyone knows who you are and they like you.”

“I thought that’s how you’re supposed to win elections,” he said. “I think it means you’re just winning.”

But many voters are just starting to pay attention to the race, and the first TV ads just begin airing, with Stringer going up first. One potential red flag for Yang: A majority of voters said in that NY1/Ipsos poll that they wanted a mayor with either government experience (33 percent) or managerial experience (22 percent). Stringer’s ad hits on this theme, noting that he’s “not a celebrity” and “doesn’t govern by tweet or TikTok.”

Smith said Yang, a former businessman who has never held public office, fits that second description. But it’s clear that Yang’s pitch is much more about his vision for the city and his outsider status than about any experience he’s had.

Wolfson said that “the downside [of ranked-choice voting] is you can have somebody who starts out in a favorable position, has vulnerabilities, but those vulnerabilities are never really adjudicated, because nobody wants to be the one to adjudicate them.” In other words, the way ranked-choice voting disincentivizes negative campaigning means voters may be unfamiliar with a given candidate’s flaws.

But Wolfson said ranked-choice voting won’t change the basic political reality of campaigns, which is that “the best candidate running the best campaign” will usually win.


Read more from Yahoo News: