Who’s Really Wins and How Do Ranked Choice Mayor’s Govern?

Ideas and Issues
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June 24, 2021

Little Rock     

New York City is a Democratic town, despite the fact that until the recent two terms of Mayor Bill de Blasio, there had been a long run of Republican mayors from Rudy Giuliani to Michael Bloomberg.  Given that fact, the Democratic primary pretty much is the whole game.  Win that, and the job is yours.  For the first time, ranked choice voting was in play, rather than a runoff, so this giant experiment with New York City itself as the guinea pig is now past the vote counting and into the computer algorithm stage.

With the first votes counted before the computers begin their sorting to redistribute votes, I’m still a skeptic. I’ve already argued that this system disadvantages our constituency by making voting too confusing and complex and therefore discouraging turnout.  Now, looking at the first wave of results from the election, I’ve got even more concerns.

The so-called more moderate candidate Eric Adams, Brooklyn Borough president and former policeman, led with 31.7% of the vote and 253,234 first place votes.  This is New York City, so even a moderate is more progressive than most of what is on offer around the rest of the country.  Maya Wiley, labeled the most progressive candidate, was second at 22.3% and 177,722 votes, about 76,000 votes behind, with Kathryn Garcia, narrowly behind her with 19.7% of the vote and 155,812 votes.  Fourth was the former presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, with over 93,000 votes and 11.7% of the total votes out of the almost 800,000 cast.  Mathematically, there’s a way to imagine Wiley or Garcia collecting enough second and third place votes to still win, but most observers believe that it is unlikely that either can overcome the 76,000-vote lead held by Adams.

Two problems worry me.

One is my feeling that in a runoff, either Wiley or Garcia, might have been able to win in a head-to-head race with Adams by marshalling a broader progressive and change-based coalition out of their votes and favorability from the total field of thirteen candidates.  Maybe I’m wrong, but only an actual election contest could determine that, not a computer.  Either would have had a lot going for them.  First woman.  First Black woman or first Hispanic woman.  Who knows?

And, that’s my second major concern, because the very fact that no one knows who might have won a solid majority of New York City voters leaves the question, how does anyone govern with a nonexistent mandate to do so effectively?  Less than one-third voted for Adams as their first choice, while both Wiley and Garcia can claim a full fifth of the total votes as their most committed base.  If either of them was to pull off a mathematical miracle, their mandate would even be weaker, but less than one-third is also a mountain to climb when it comes to really governing.

Everyone will claim a mandate, but no one will have one.  Being second, third or fourth won’t convince a city or a city council that your program has support, especially when some of these newly elected officials can rightly point to the fact that they were elected with majorities.

What a mess!  This whole ranked choice thing just seems like an experiment that shouldn’t be repeated anywhere else in the country.  We’ll see if there’s an initiative coming over the next couple of years to get rid of it in New York City as well.