NEW YORK – New Yorkers were heading to the polls Tuesday to pick their next mayor in what could be one of the most consequential elections in the city’s recent history.
The winner of the crowded Democratic primary in New York City is all but sure to win the general election in November, and voters will pick the nominee using ranked choice voting, a new twist to the mayoral election.
Coupled with the ranked choice system and the tightly contested race, an increased number of absentee ballots means the winner won’t be announced on election night. New Yorkers will probably have to wait until July for a full count.
Polling has shown former police captain and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams in the lead as the race closes, but former sanitation department head Kathryn Garcia, civil rights attorney and former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio Maya Wiley and entrepreneur- turned-political-hopeful Andrew Yang are all optimistic about their chances of becoming mayor.
The campaign has centered largely on crime, policing and public safety, though candidates have also made their pitch on how they’d lead New York City in its economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
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“It is truly one of the most, if not the most important election that we’ve seen simply because of (the pandemic) and how do you come back,” said Sid Davidoff, a senior adviser to former Mayor John Lindsay. “Then the question becomes: Who best leads in this city going into these next couple years?”
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Eight major Democrats are running for mayor, though polling has shown four candidates pulling ahead: Adams, Garcia, Wiley and Yang.
Adams has made public safety his campaign’s central message. He’s called for boosting the number of police officers in high-crime areas.
“Public safety so outweighs everything else in this campaign that (Adams) is going to stick to his lane,” Davidoff said.
Adams won the backing of the New York Post editorial board.
Wiley has embraced the idea of diverting funds from the police department to increase spending on homelessness and mental health services, as well as schools. She won the backing of many of the city’s liberal leaders, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
Garcia’s and Yang’s policing platforms are more similar to Adams’. Garcia emphasized her extensive government experience and made tackling climate change a part of her campaign. She won the endorsements of The New York Times and New York Daily News editorial boards, which Davidoff said were huge boosts to her chances.
Yang sought to implement a local version of the basic income plan he campaigned on when he ran for president in 2020. He started out as the race’s front-runner but has dipped some in polling. “He came in with great name recognition. He’s certainly a cheerleader,” Davidoff said. “He just never, I think, rose to be able to convince people he understood it.”
Other candidates who have not fared as well in polling are City Comptroller Scott Stringer, former Wall Street executive Ray McGuire, former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales and former housing secretary Shaun Donovan.
An Ipsos poll released Monday showed Adams in first place, with 28% of the first-choice votes. Yang was in second with 20%, Garcia in third with 15% and Wiley in fourth with 13%.
A poll released June 14 by WNBC, Telemundo 47, Politico and Marist showed Adams in the lead with 24% of first-choice votes. Garcia trailed in second with 17%, Wiley in third with 15% and Yang in fourth with 13%.
The Republican candidates are businessman Fernando Mateo and Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa.
There are more than 3 million registered Democratic voters compared with about half a million registered Republican voters in the city, so the winner of the Democratic primary is likely to cruise to victory in November, even though the city had two Republican mayors in Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg before de Blasio was elected.
How does ranked choice voting work in NYC?
New to this mayoral election is ranked choice voting, which will allow voters to rank their preferences for up to five candidates.
If no candidate wins a majority of the vote, votes for the candidate with the fewest number of first-choice preferences will be redistributed based on who is listed as the second-choice preference on that ballot. The process continues until there are two candidates left, and the person with the most votes wins.
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Ranked choice voting systems are part of larger efforts to change local democracies and allow voters to better express their preferences in an election, said Michael Hendrix, director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute.
In other cities where it has been used, it generally has not led to major surprises, he said, meaning if there is a consensus candidate, that candidate often wins.
Polling from the Manhattan Institute and Public Opinion Strategies found Adams in first with 24% and Garcia in second with 22%, but Garcia narrowly edged out Adams in the final round of preference redistribution after Yang and Wiley dropped off.
About half of Yang’s voters went to Adams, and the other half split between Garcia and Wiley after he was eliminated. Wiley came in third with 29% of the vote, and a larger chunk of her voters ranked Garcia higher than Adams, boosting the former sanitation department head to victory.
Yang and Garcia campaigned together over the weekend, the strongest show of unity between two candidates in the race.
The pair advocated for voters to use fully the ranked choice system. Yang endorsed Garcia as his second pick, though Garcia stopped short of endorsing Yang.
Adams was critical of the move. He said on CNN he saw it as sending a signal of “keeping Adams and others out of the place of mayor” and referred to efforts to disenfranchise Black voters, such as a poll tax. A news release from Adams’ campaign quoting his allies compared the Yang-Garcia alliance to “voter suppression.”
Alliances are common in ranked choice systems, said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY, and Sean Dugar, education campaign program director for Rank the Vote NYC, both advocates of the system.
“There is nothing insidious or cynical about two candidates transparently using a legitimate strategy in a democratically approved system of election,” Lerner and Dugar said in a statement.
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The Board of Elections plans to release partial results on election night. These results will include only in-person votes and only the first-choice preferences from election day and the early voting period, which attracted more than 190,000 voters.
State law allows for absentee ballots to trickle in over the next week, and absentee voters will be given the chance to “cure” ballots with defects. The number of absentee voters is high during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a race as tight as the mayoral election, the votes from absentee ballots could be the deciding factor in later rounds of the ranked choice system.
Common Cause/NY said July 12 is the likely date when the full ranked choice voting calculation will be released.
“Democracy takes time, and every vote counts. Accurate and fair election results are worth waiting for,” Lerner said.
Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller
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