| Erin Durkin ∙ Politico PRO |
New York City’s ranked-choice voting system reshaped the city’s primary campaign — but during its first citywide run, the new method definitively changed the outcome in only a handful of races.
”It is indisputable that ranked choice voting produced the most historic City Council in its diversity and its representation.
In three races out of a total of 63, the candidate who won the largest number of first-choice votes ultimately lost the election, according to a POLITICO analysis of final election results.
In the other 60 races, the top first-choice vote getter was victorious — either because they won an outright majority, as was the case in 21 races, or because they ultimately emerged the winner from the ranked-choice vote counting process, as happened in 39 contests.
New York this year became the biggest city in the U.S. to adopt the new system which voters approved in 2019 — and ranked-choice itself became a campaign issue. Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams raised the specter of disenfranchisement when two close rivals — Kathryn Garcia and Andrew Yang — formed an alliance to encourage their voters to rank each other. But Adams emerged the winner in both in first-place, and subsequent votes.
His results as well as those citywide are in line with national trends, where the vast majority of ranked-choice contests are won the leader in first-choice votes. The opposite has happened only 3.8 percent of the time, according to data from FairVote.
But in three City Council races — Democratic primaries in Queens and Harlem and a Republican primary on Staten Island — a candidate who lagged in first-choice votes ultimately came from behind to win with the benefit of down-ballot votes. Two of those races were so close they were only decided after lengthy hand recounts, with the final batch of results certified last week.
Under the ranked-choice system, voters pick up to five candidates ranked in order or preference. If no one gets a majority on the first ballot, the last place candidate is eliminated and their votes are distributed to the voter’s second choice, a process that continues until one candidate claims more than 50 percent.
In Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, Queens, tenants rights lawyer Shekar Krishnan won the Democratic nomination — even though rival Yi Chen, who cleaned up in absentee ballots, got the most first-choice votes.
Krishnan led in unofficial returns on election night, but once absentee ballots were factored in, Chen led with 4,014 votes, or 26.9 percent, to 3,915, or 26.3 percent for Krishnan.
After seven rounds of counting, Krishnan won by a significant margin, taking 53.4 percent of the vote to 46.6 percent for Chen. Krishnan, who was endorsed by many unions and elected officials, especially benefited when Carolyn Tran — the furthest left candidate in the race — was eliminated in the final round, and he picked up many of her remaining votes.
Krishnan said ranked choice voting was a key part of his campaign strategy in the district, where Latino and Asian voters predominate and an estimated 167 languages are spoken.
“We really had a broad coalition that was multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-generational, across every corner of the district,” said Krishnan, who is set to become one of the first Council members of south Asian descent. “I’m a south Asian candidate running in a city where we’ve never elected a south Asian before — and a fluent Spanish speaker as well.”
When he encountered a voter who said they’d already decided on a different favorite in the race, he would not give up his pitch.
“I’d say, ‘That’s great. I hope to be your second choice,’” he said. “It is indisputable that ranked choice voting produced the most historic City Council in its diversity and its representation.”
But Chen, who lost out due to the new system, said ranked choice left many voters confused, especially older residents who do not use the internet.
“I just don’t think, even until now, the voters really know what’s going on with the new system of voting,” he said. “A lot of people are confused; even a lot of people who have been in the community for a while.”
Chen believes many voters filled in their down-ballot choices somewhat randomly, choosing anyone they had heard of — benefiting candidates with higher name recognition, to the disadvantage of his own upstart candidacy. “We’re not even educating our voters on what’s going on. That’s what I dislike about this system,” he said.
A complaint has been filed with the Queens DA regarding Chen’s absentee ballot operation, City & State reported. Chen said he has not been notified. He said most of his supporters were more comfortable voting by absentee ballot because of the pandemic and anti-Asian violence.
Closer was a Harlem Council race, where challenger Kristin Richardson Jordan ultimately defeated incumbent Democrat Bill Perkins by just 114 votes.
Results in the race were only certified last week, because the margin between the two candidates — less than half of one percent of the vote — was small enough to trigger a hand recount.
Perkins led in first-choice votes, with 5,404 votes or 21.1 percent, while Jordan had 4,879 votes or 19.0 percent. But after thirteen rounds of counting, Jordan finished with 9,034 votes, or 50.3 percent, to 8,920 or 49.7 percent for Perkins. The challenger pulled ahead only in the final round, after third place candidate Athena Moore was eliminated.
The race provided a classic example of a case where backers tout the impact of ranked-choice voting: Perkins, a longtime veteran of Harlem politics, was a vulnerable incumbent, only jumping into the race for reelection at the last minute and not mounting much of a campaign. He faced questions about his health and cognitive ability to do the job.
But a dozen challengers got into the race, and split the vote on the first choice ballot. Under the old system, that would have allowed Perkins to squeak by with a narrow win. Instead, anti-incumbent votes were shifted to Jordan and she emerged victorious.
“It’s harder to escape voters wanting to vote for change,” said FairVote president Rob Richie. “It’s not an anti-incumbent tool. But it’s harder to escape the judgment of voters when they’re ready for someone new.”
Perkins conceded this month, saying he plans to retire from public service when his term is up at the end of the year.
“This campaign is a testament to people power and the power of the grassroots. In the end we chose not to rely on political consultants or campaign veterans. Instead, we built a passionate base of volunteers who believed in our vision of radical love politics,” Jordan, a democratic socialist, said after the vote was certified.
The wildest race came on Staten Island, where Republican David Carr was certified the winner this month over Marko Kepi in a contest marked by allegations of voter fraud and racism.
Carr is the chief of staff to City Council Minority Leader Steven Matteo, who currently holds the seat and is term limited. Kepi is a Marine reservist and vocal Donald Trump supporter.
According to Board of Elections results after a hand recount, Kepi got 2,883 first choice votes, or 33.6 percent of the total, while Carr got 2,698 or 31.4 percent.
After three other candidates were eliminated, Carr ended up the winner by 44 votes, besting Kepi by 50.3 to 49.7 percent.
The race has prompted a criminal investigation into allegations of fraud by Kepi whose campaign is accused of forging absentee ballots. Meanwhile, the contest remains in court as Kepi challenges the rejection of absentee ballots, charging Albanian American voters were targeted.
While it only mathematically flipped the outcome in a handful of races, Richie said the ranked choice system is responsible for much broader shifts in city politics — noting increased turnout and a greater likelihood that voters making a choice for mayor would also participate in races down the ballot.
“There’s an impact in virtually all those races,” he said. “There was an impact measured not just by whether it changed the outcome, but how the candidates ran their campaigns.”