Politico

Voting kicks off in a New York City mayor's race like no other


NEW YORK — Polling sites across New York welcomed a trickle of voters on the first official day of a historic election — and those who turned out seemed primed for a new style of voting, but overwhelmed with choices.

The Democratic primary for mayor comes after one of New York’s darkest periods, as a city that had been booming for years saw its fortunes turned upside down. Crime rates that steadily dwindled for decades are spiking, unemployment is dangerously high and the city’s economy has only begun a fragile recovery.

Against that backdrop, voters are trying out ranked-choice voting for the first time — New Yorkers will be able to pick up to five candidates for mayor and other city offices in order of preference as early voting kicked off Saturday before the official June 22 primary.

“It makes you feel a little more at ease,” said Andrea Glenn, 64, of the new system. The Prospect Heights, Brooklyn resident ranked Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams first for mayor and Comptroller Scott Stringer second. “If my person doesn’t win, my second or third choice may still have the ability.”

That calculation has changed the strategy of voters and campaigns alike — though many who spoke to POLITICO said they did not take full advantage of the new system.

“I was looking forward to [RCV] because I usually like the fringe candidates and now you can empower people who you might not otherwise have supported,” Crown Heights resident Stephen White, 47, said outside of the Brooklyn Museum. “But I didn’t end up ranking that many people.”

Voting locations were sparsely attended across town, even in some of the most civically active sections of Brooklyn and Queens. By 10 a.m. at the Brooklyn Museum, there appeared to be more people doing outdoor yoga than marking ballots inside.

But there were still signs that the political season is reaching its peak. Candidates crisscrossed the city and canvassers were out in force, outnumbering voters and attempting to pawn off stacks of campaign literature to residents and tourists alike. In Queens, a row of about 20 motorcycles were double-parked, catty-cornered to a Cambria Heights voting site. Almost all had Adams signs in their front windshields. All told, the city’s Board of Elections counted more than 16,800 early voters, according to an evening tweet.

Many who ventured out to pull the lever said having a broader say in who wins was an improvement over past years. But taking full advantage of the new method required a hefty amount of research, said Stephanie Horton, 50, who works at Google and lives in the Financial District.

“If you don’t have in-depth knowledge about the candidates, then it becomes a little random after the second or third round,” she said. “You’re not making an informed choice.”

Because the city skews so heavily Democratic, this month’s primaries will effectively pick the next mayor, comptroller and public advocate along with borough presidents, 51 Council members and a smattering of judgeships. That translates to more than 20 potential choices on some ballots.

White, the Crown Heights voter, went with Maya Wiley as his first choice and Dianne Morales as his number two — both more liberal candidates —  leaving the remaining three slots vacant. The rest of the field, he said, did not appeal to him. As for the down-ballot races, he said finding enough useful information to form preferences about multiple people was difficult — making endorsements from known elected officials especially important.

The new voting system was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2019 as a way to avoid the cost and low turnout of runoff elections. If no one wins a majority, then the last-place finisher is eliminated and the second-place votes from those ballots are redistributed to the remaining field. The process repeats itself until someone breaks the 50 percent barrier.

A coalition of groups and elected officials, largely from the city’s Black political establishment, have opposed the idea of ranked-choice voting since it was first proposed. They have argued that their communities would not receive adequate education and rank in fewer numbers than other areas of the city — effectively disenfranchising them in an instant-runoff scenario. A recent poll from Fontas Advisors and Core Decision Analytics appeared to confirm some of those fears, showing that white voters from Manhattan and Brooklyn were the most likely to pick more than one person on their ballots.

Adams, a leading candidate, expressed doubts about the new system as recently as last week, criticizing the city’s education efforts around ranked-choice voting and raising the specter of contested results if the count ends up being close or the city’s error-prone Board of Elections hits any snags in the tabulations.

“What happens to everyday New Yorkers? The Board of Elections betrayed us once again and didn’t properly educate and get information out,” he said at a Lower Manhattan campaign stop last Friday. “It would be lucky if we get these results by January 18. We don’t know how long this is going to take. I’m really troubled about the outcome of this, I hope the counting does not equal the rollout.”

Yet on Friday, Adams warmly received second-place endorsements from U.S. Reps. Ritchie Torres, Hakeem Jeffries and Gregory Meeks along with Citizens Union — each had already picked other candidates as their first choice.

And voters in Southeast Queens, a critical battleground made up largely of Black homeowners, appeared comfortable with the system Saturday.

Veronica Haynes, 57, a compliance manager for Amtrak from Laurelton told POLITICO she ranked Andrew Yang first, followed by Kathryn Garcia, Wiley, Ray McGuire and Stringer. Haynes, a 22-year veteran of the NYPD, said she was drawn to Yang’s change message and his approach to issues facing the city.

“I liked him when he was running for president… I think he’s probably something new, some fresh air,” she said. “Why not? Let’s give it a try.”

Reuben E., a 66-year-old former utility services worker from St. Albans who declined to give his last name, said that he was looking for experience and level-headed policy ideas. Reuben ranked Eric Adams first, followed by Yang, Wiley, McGuire and Shaun Donovan and praised the ranked-choice system for avoiding later runoff elections.

“A couple of candidates came out for defunding the police,” he told POLITICO. “That wasn’t a major issue. Maybe administering their budget a little bit better, but defunding the police is a categorically ridiculous statement.”

That sentiment is reflected in polls as well, with many New Yorkers citing a dramatic spike in shootings as an issue of great concern heading into the primary. Those fears have boosted Adams, a retired police captain who has focused his campaign on public safety.

Adams has topped recent polls as Yang has fallen back from his early lead at the beginning of the race. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, posted another solid quarter of fundraising, raking in $618,000 in the most recent filing period that ended last week and spending a whopping $5.9 million, leaving him with $1.7 million on hand.

Garcia, the former sanitation commissioner who has also been steadily climbing in the polls, had her best filing yet — with the city’s Campaign Finance Board reporting she raised more than $700,000 in the most recent period with $1.3 million left in the bank.

Yang brought in more than $430,000 and still has $1.8 million left.

Wiley, former counsel to de Blasio and MSNBC legal analyst, did not fare as well — taking in only $286,000 with only $35,000 left in the bank. As the campaigns of fellow progressives weathered major setbacks, the city’s far-left leaders only recently rallied behind Wiley’s standard, with late endorsements last weekend from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.

Wiley joined Yang, Adams and McGuire at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network Saturday morning to stump for ranked-choice voting.

“What ranking more than one candidate means is if we go to a runoff, you will still have a voice and a vote,” Wiley told the crowd. “Don’t let them take it from you.”

The Board of Elections will release initial voting totals on June 22, showing which candidates New Yorkers picked as their first choice. But because no one is expected to crack 50 percent, the board will need to wait for absentee ballots to roll in before it can finish the ranking process, which could last until mid-July.

Reuben E. said avoiding a runoff was a good thing — the wait was not.

“I think it’s great. It saves money, less aggravation and grief,” he said. “The only problem is that you got to wait so long for results. So after election night, it’s not over.”

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