Why There Could Be No Winner on Election Night

Photo: Jeenah Moon/REUTERS

Voters will likely have to wait nearly three weeks after the June 22 primary election to learn which mayoral candidate is one step away from taking up residence in Gracie Mansion next year.

That’s the timeline set forth by the city’s Board of Elections to finish the involved process of counting ballots, thanks to the citywide introduction of ranked-choice voting. Voters may now select up to five candidates and rank them from first to last. (There are 13 candidates on the Democratic ballot for mayor.) A candidate must receive at least 50 percent of the vote to be declared the winner.

If no candidate wins outright, the ranked choices come into play. First-choice votes are counted first. If the threshold isn’t reached, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated. For voters who selected the candidate who was knocked out of the round, their next ranked choice will then be counted. Rounds will continue in this way until it’s down to the two final candidates. Then the candidate with the most votes of those two will be declared the winner.

The new voting system will be employed only by the city and not for statewide elections. In addition to mayor, voters will rank their choices for City Council seats, comptroller, and borough presidents. The exception is the ballot for Manhattan district attorney, which is considered to be a state office, rather than a city one.

And if that weren’t enough, not all ballots will be counted at once.

After polls close at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, the BOE is expected to release unofficial preliminary results based on early and same-day voting, as they normally do. (Absentee ballots must be postmarked by June 22 and have a week to reach a BOE office.) So far, according to the BOE, 191,197 people cast ballots during the nine-day early voting period that ended Sunday.

Over the weekend, front-runner Eric Adams, who has previously criticized ranked-choice voting, took issue with the plan to release preliminary results on Election Day. “We should hold all the numbers until we have the final number,” Adams said Sunday as reported by the New York Times. In an interview with Fox 5 on Monday, Adams said that releasing preliminary results rather than waiting for final results could result in a “roller coaster of emotions for the people of this city.”

On June 29, the BOE will tabulate the unofficial first-round results, but no candidate is expected to reach 50 percent on the first ballot — meaning more votes will have to be counted, and ranked choices will come into effect. Also on this day, one week after Election Day, absentee, military, and provisional ballots can begin to be tabulated. (Once absentee ballots are received, the BOE will alert voters if they have any errors and allow them until July 9 to “cure” their ballot.)

After that first count, another week will go by, until July 6, when the BOE will provide an updated count with the number of received absentee ballots and give weekly updates as more come in. Final official results are expected during the week of July 12, nearly three weeks after the polls close.

In 2019, nearly 74 percent of city voters supported a ballot measure that put a ranked-choice voting system in place for primary and special elections. This move also put an end to the city’s runoff elections between the two top primary candidates, which occurred if no candidate had received 40 percent of the vote.

Just a few days prior to the primary, Andrew Yang and Kathryn Garcia made use of a common strategy seen in ranked-choice systems to form an alliance: Yang told his supporters to rank Garcia second, though she did not return the favor. Adams called it “the wrong message to send.”

Ranked-choice systems are being adopted across the country. Maine is the only state currently using the system statewide and actually expanded its use to presidential elections in 2020. Alaska is set to introduce the system statewide in 2022 for state and federal elections. And according to the Salt Lake Tribune, 23 cities in Utah have opted into the state’s pilot program for municipal ranked-choice voting as of May. Supporters of the system say the distribution of votes results in an eventual winner who represents a majority of voters.

“When it comes to ranked-choice voting, the successful candidate is going to be the candidate who is able to convince 51 percent of the population that they actually were a viable option with a successful plan for meeting the needs of the city of New York,” said Lurie Daniel Favors, the interim executive director at the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, CUNY. “That’s vitally important because, in a traditional winner-take-all system, you could win an election with only a third of the vote, only speaking to and making policy to center the needs of a very small portion of the overall New York City population.”

Deb Otis, a senior research analyst with FairVote, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on election reforms, said ranked-choice voting should make people less concerned about casting a ballot for people they think may not win.

“Voters get five choices, so we don’t need to do this math of saying, ‘Well, this person’s my favorite, but do they have a chance?’ or ‘Are they electable?’” she said.

Why There Could Be No Winner on Election Night