What New York City Taught Us About Ranked Choice Voting and the Democratic Party

The Eric Adams victory has lessons for how candidates can win under the system. Hint: Running in tandem with others is overrated.

After two weeks of jarring uncertainty and speculative mathematical permutations, the New York City Democratic mayoral primary vote count ends as it initially began on Election Day with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams on top. And as the Republican Party has nominated token opposition (the faux crime fighter Curtis Sliwa), Adams is all but assured of succeeding Mayor Bill de Blasio.

As always, the media attention lavished on New York City is often annoyingly disproportionate. But  this outcome has relevance to those of us who do not live there. As America’s most populous city with an economy that has national and global reach, we all have a stake in its management and prosperity. The city’s Democratic electorate is economically and racially diverse, so its primaries provide insight into what the party’s base is thinking and feeling. And as I wrote here previously, this year’s primary was the biggest test yet for Ranked Choice Voting—the voting method in which voters can rank multiple candidates and secondary choices get counted if primary choices get eliminated.

For now we can only hope that Adams can deftly steer the New York City ship. But we can more readily assess what his success says about the Democrats and RCV.

Before we even saw the final results, Adams was explaining to his fellow Democrats that his apparent victory meant, “America is saying we want to have justice and safety and end inequality. And we don’t want fancy candidates. We want candidates—their nails are not polished, they have callouses on their hands and they’re blue collar people.

Never mind that New York City isn’t the equivalent of “America.” Adams is right that most voters don’t view “safety” as in tension with “justice” and equality. They want it all.

And Adams—an African-American Brooklyn-born victim of police violence who became a police officer and an advocate for internal reform—was uniquely positioned to craft a message that blended police reform with support for policing.

At a campaign appearance in May, Adams recounted when he marched in his police academy uniform to protest the 1984 killing by a police officer of the elderly and mentally ill Eleanor Bumpurs, telling the crowd, “I’m not new to this. I’m true to this.” That track record made it easier for Adams to claim he could restore controversial policing strategies including stop-and-frisk and plainclothes units but cleanse them of racial profiling.

The mayoral runner-up, Kathryn Garcia, also had a blended message; her website issues page reads, “Driving Down Crime And Police Reform Are Not In Conflict With One Another.” But as a white person—her last name is by marriage—with no lived experience suffering racism from police officers, no professional experience in the police force and no activist experience as a criminal justice reformer, she didn’t bring criminal justice credentials to the table.

Maya Wiley, was the only top tier candidate to propose significant budget cuts to the police department—a $1 billion cut to be exact. And she ran ads describing herself as a “civil rights lawyer” who will “transform the police”—a phrase which she clearly hoped would have broader appeal than “defund the police.” Such bold stances helped her win the endorsement of New York’s most prominent progressive elected official, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

That endorsement elevated Wiley into the top tier, and helped attract secondary votes in the ranked choice system from other progressive candidates. But the one-sided police reform message, without a strong pairing with an anti-crime message, limited her appeal and left her with 29 percent of the vote before being eliminated in the penultimate round.

After the vote count began with Adams leading, New York magazine’s leftist commentator Eric Levitz warned that “public alarm over crime [can] trigger a punitive turn in policy.” He counseled progressives that “we aren’t going to persuade the urban working class to disregard rising homicide. Thus, our best bet for resisting a punitive turn in criminal-justice policy is to convince voters that our approach to public safety is more effective than the pro-carceral status quo.” Alongside the efforts of the growing ranks of progressive district attorneys, such as San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin, Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, Los Angeles’ George Gascón, much of that progressive hope is now going to rest, perhaps uneasily, with soon-to-be New York City Mayor Eric Adams.

What did the primary teach us about how Ranked Choice Voting affects campaigns? As we’ve seen in a few mayoral campaigns with RCV in other cities, when winning an outright majority is implausible, candidates can be compelled to forge alliances in hopes of earning critical secondary support. However, only one partnership materialized in New York City—the awkward quasi-alliance between Garcia and Andrew Yang. The two campaigned together in the home stretch, but while Yang said he would rank Garcia as his second choice, Garcia did not reciprocate.

Still, to have candidates stump together is a far cry from trying to bludgeon each other. And some RCV advocates, such as those from FairVote, argue that the need for secondary support encourages civility on the trail: “RCV encourages more civil discourse between candidates because candidates campaign not only for first-choice support, but also the second-choice support of other candidates. Consequently, [candidates] have less incentive to make negative statements about their opponents because they risk alienating that opponent’s supporters.”

But the Garcia-Yang partnership fizzled in practice. Once the votes of Yang, who came in fourth, were redistributed, Garcia won 32 percent of them, but Adams picked 28 percent, greatly diminishing the value of the partnership to Garcia. (Another 29 percent of Yang’s support couldn’t go to anyone remaining in the race and was discarded.)

Contrast that performance with what happened in the 2018 San Francisco nonpartisan mayoral race. Two progressives, Mark Leno and Jane Kim, co-endorsed each other and cut a joint TV ad in an attempt to deny victory to the moderate acting Mayor London Breed. It almost worked, as Leno picked up 68 percent of the Kim vote for the final round. While Leno trailed Breed by 14 points in the penultimate round, he lost in the final round by only one point. Garcia didn’t narrow the gap with Adams to one point until Wiley was eliminated before the final round, someone with whom Garcia did not have any alliance at all.

Leno and Kim had overlapping ideological views and were able to form a natural alliance. Garcia and Yang was more of a shotgun marriage. There was no shared philosophical principle undergirding their announcement, which made it harder to convince one candidate’s supporters they had an obligation to rank the other candidate second. (Also hampering the partnership was its materializing only late in the campaign, after some voters had already cast ballots by mail.)

Meanwhile, Adams didn’t partner with anybody. He attacked all his rivals without hesitation. He didn’t navigate Ranked Choice Voting with clever machinations. He steamrolled over it with pugnacious bravado. He understood Rule #1 of Ranked Choice Voting: the person with the most first-choice votes wins 96 percent of the time.

Granted, Adams almost lost. And you can lose even if you have the most first-choice votes, by alienating so many voters that you end up with a hard ceiling in regards to secondary votes. Adams took that risk and got away with it. And New York—as well as Ranked Choice Voting—dodged the tumult of having a Black candidate all but being declared the victor on election night and then having that seeming result overturned by a Caucasian candidate.

Might a stronger alliance have thwarted Adams? We’ll never know. Theoretically a Garcia-Wiley alliance could have garnered Garcia enough votes to edge past Adams in the final round. Maybe they could have papered over their differences on policing and jointly campaigned on ensuring New York City elects its first woman mayor. Maybe Garcia would have been able to broaden her support beyond her base of white, affluent moderate Manhattanites, or Wiley would have been able to broaden her support to include more white, affluent moderate Manhattanites.

Personally, I remain skeptical such crass plays can work. When there is shared value, voters are more likely to see an alliance as authentic. When there is not, voters may only see selfish political calculation, and that undercuts authenticity.

Maybe future candidates will try to improve upon Garcia-Yang by partnering sooner and more aggressively. But I would suggest more candidates replicate Adams. Even in a Ranked Choice Voting system, nothing beats being your authentic self.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"