David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

The New York City mayoral race is wide open. With the primary election only weeks away, the latest polls show half of likely Democratic voters have not made up their minds about who they support.

Gauging support for a candidate is harder this year because, for the first time in the city’s history, ranked-choice voting will determine the winners in the June primary. In this election, it no longer matters if you are the most popular candidate. What matters is the share of popularity each candidate can garner citywide.

Voters must do their homework: Learn the issues, and pick not just your favorite candidate, but up to five for each office before casting your ballot. Democratic contenders will be heavily favored in the general election; GOP voters are outnumbered more than six to one.

Labor unions, nonprofit advocacy groups, community organizations and political parties of all stripes in New York City must implore their supporters to prepare in advance. The stakes could not be higher. The next mayor and City Council will confront a series of staggering challenges. Several candidates have put forth their plans for addressing job creation in the aftermath of the pandemic, inequities in education and health care, and reforming police practices. There has also been considerable debate about the rental housing crisis.

My organization, Community Service Society, hosted two virtual mayoral candidate forums and published a voter guide online, The 2021 Race For Mayor, that details the candidates’ positions on addressing inequities in healthcare, housing, the criminal justice system and other problems exacerbated by the pandemic. The guide is a good place to start preparing your personal ranked-choice candidates list.

The new voting system could reward an overlooked, low-key candidate not seen as an obvious front-runner, but who is ranked second or third by more voters citywide. Ideally, candidates seek to be every voter’s first choice, but now, being everyone’s second choice is perfectly fine. That may sound nonsensical but working to collect the most frequent second- or third-choice votes is a solid strategy to victory.

Ranked-choice voting works like this: Voters rank up to five candidates on their ballot in order of preference for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough president and City Council. If no one tops 50 percent, the last-place candidate is eliminated and the ousted candidate’s votes then go to the second choice on the voter’s ballot. A computer continues the tabulation, round by round, until two candidates remain — and one is the winner.

The bad news is, the Board of Elections has so far failed to teach voters about the new system in a meaningful way that breeds public confidence. Mayor de Blasio, Governor Cuomo, the City Council and other officials must step in to demand a public education program.

Five states used the system to tabulate votes this year in presidential primaries or caucuses: Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, Wyoming and Nevada, according to FairVote, a nonpartisan group that promotes the system. Ranked-choice voting has been approved in 18 cities around the country, including Minneapolis, San Francisco and Santa Fe.

Some good-government groups say the system increases voter turnout and discourages negative campaigning. Candidates are, indeed, more motivated to venture into neighborhoods outside their traditional base, trying to pick up second- and third-place votes.

Exit polls of Queens voters in this year’s two City Council special elections indicate that voters were somewhat familiar with ranked-choice voting and were adapting to the system.

On the other hand, opponents in New York City filed a lawsuit to delay ranked-choice voting, which has gotten no traction in the courts. The suit argues the system undermines the voting power of immigrants and ethnic groups, as well as effectively disenfranchises non-English speakers and voters of color who might lack the time and resources to properly research each candidate and how the new voting system works.

The new system creates an endless set of questions about strategy without clear answers for the candidates and their campaign handlers. Do endorsements even matter? The campaigns are still trying to adapt, and candidates have taken the odd step of endorsing each other. That’s right, cross-endorsements. Why? They join hands with their opponents in hopes of scoring second- or third-choice votes.

The second-choice-winner strategy is not just a hairbrained theory. That’s how it played out in Minneapolis four years ago when Phillipe Cunningham, an openly transgender Black man, was elected to the City Council. He initially came in second, only to win the race when all the ballot preferences were counted.

“Ranked-choice voting really helped me, as a marginalized person, have a voice in this election,” Cunningham said in a news release following the victory. “My favorite thing about ranked-choice voting is that it allowed me to build relationships across bases. It wasn’t just ‘either or’.”

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.