Ranked Choice Voting, Other Election Changes Impact NYC Mayoral Primary

June 21, 2021

There has not been a closely-contested mayoral primaries in New York City since 2013, the year Democrat Bill de Blasio was elected. Now completing his second term, the incumbent is ineligible to run this year.

This year, thirteen Democrats and two Republicans are vying for their respective party's nominations. Almost all the focus is on the Democratic side, as the winner of Tuesday's primary will be an overwhelming favorite to be elected in November.  

There have been a number of significant changes in election law and administration over the past couple years that will be put to the test for the first time in a NYC mayoral election.  While the overall goals are laudable - increasing turnout and finding a winner preferred by a majority of the electorate - the changes also mean it will likely be several weeks before we know who the Democratic nominee will be. 

Ranked Choice Voting: Approved for certain elections in a 2019 referendum, voters can select up to five candidates, ranking them in order of preference.  Initially, each voter's first choice is counted. If one candidate has a majority, that person is the winner. If not, the candidate with the lowest support is eliminated and the second choices on the associated ballots are redistributed to the remaining candidates. If no candidate has a majority, the process repeats until one candidate crosses that threshold. 

RCV is often called an 'instant runoff'. That is correct in that the process avoids holding a second election - required in some states - to ensure a candidate gets a majority of the vote. However, the instant runoff cannot be conducted until all the votes are counted and the ordering of the candidates is known. Due to the schedule around absentee ballots (discussed below), this is not expected until the week of July 12 (or later).

This will also make it challenging for the media to project a winner as the plurality first choice winner may not necessarily be the last person standing once all the rounds are completed. In fact, campaigns have been teaming up to try and game the system a bit. 

While RCV is the largest hurdle to media outlets projecting a winner, numerous other changes in election administration since the last mayoral race may impact the composition of the voting electorate. 

Absentee Ballots: The strict rules around absentee ballots have been relaxed due to COVID. According to Bloomberg, 200,000 ballots were requested for this primary vs. 18,000 in 2013. While those won't all be returned, there is clearly going to be a large jump in voting this way. By law, election officials cannot start tabulating those ballots until June 28. Voters have until July 9 to cure any issues (e.g., signature problems) if notified by the Board of Elections. 

Early Voting: This was the first mayoral election with an in-person early voting period. That lasted for nine days from June 12 through June 20. Turnout appears to have been lighter than expected.

June Primary Date: Since the 1970s, the mayoral primary has been in September. However, the state lost a lawsuit associated with presidential primaries being that late in the year. As a result, New York state law was changed in 2019 to hold all future primaries on the 4th Tuesday in June. 

Campaign Financing: A 2018 change in the city's campaign finance program increased the public matching funds ratio from 6:1 to 8:1. That is, candidates get $8 of public money for each $1 raised. The increase likely made it easier for poorly performing candidates to stay in the race. (Ranked Choice Voting also likely kept more candidates in the race).  

Election Results

On Tuesday, after the polls close at 9:00 PM ET, we expect to have unofficial first choice results for early and Election Day voting. However, this will exclude absentee ballots, which, as noted above, will not have been counted. The Board of Elections is expected to provide initial Ranked Choice results - without absentees - on June 29 and weekly thereafter (including some absentees) until all votes are counted. Complete results may arrive the week of July 12.

Ranked Choice is not an issue on the Republican side as there are only two candidates. It is possible we could know the nominee Tuesday, but that will depend on how close it is vs. the expected number of absentee ballots that won't be counted until a later date.

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