New York goes preferential

One of the big elections of the second half of this year will be not a national or even regional poll, but municipal: the four million or so voters of the city of New York will elect a new mayor, city council and other officials on 2 November. But since Democrats hugely outnumber Republicans in the city, the real election is usually the Democrat primary, held last month.

This time around, things were a bit different. Instead of the usual first-past-the-post voting, New Yorkers in 2019 voted by referendum to introduce preferential voting for local elections. Preferential voting, which Americans call “ranked-choice voting”, is a growing trend in the US, as voters and politicians search for something that will counter the dysfunctionality of their political system; Maine and Alaska use it statewide, and it’s been adopted by a number of local jurisdictions across the country.

The New York version looks strange to Australians. Voters can express a maximum of five preferences, and they do so not by writing numbers but by shading boxes in different columns. But polling so far shows a high level of satisfaction with the new system.

In the Republican primary it didn’t matter, since there were only two candidates anyway. (Curtis Sliwa, a veteran city activist, beat Fernando Mateo by a two-to-one margin.) But the Democrat primary was a much bigger affair, with 13 candidates on the ballot, four of them regarded as a serious chance.

Unfortunately, New York’s board of elections is one of the last holdovers of the corrupt patronage networks that long plagued the city’s governance. The implementation of a new voting method proved to be beyond its competence; having used 135,000 dummy ballots to test the system, it then forgot to delete them before processing the real ones. The mistake was found and corrected last week, but will no doubt continue to feed Republican conspiracy theories for months if not years.

The genuine results are now close to final, although there are still a few postal and provisional votes outstanding. On the primaries, Eric Adams, borough president of Brooklyn and a Black moderate, had a clear lead with 31.8%. He was followed by Maya Wiley, a left-winger, on 22.2%, Kathryn Garcia, somewhat more centrist, on 19.3%, and Andrew Yang, tech entrepreneur and former presidential candidate, on 11.7%.

That ordering and roughly those margins held up through the elimination of all the minor candidates. But on the second-last count, after Yang’s elimination, his preferences favored Garcia, putting her narrowly ahead of Wiley, 30.4% to 29.0%, although still ten points behind Adams. Distribution of Wiley’s preferences then ran strongly to Garcia, but not quite enough for her to overtake Adams, who prevailed with 50.5% to 49.5% on the final count, a lead of 8,426 votes.

A little over 117,000 ballots exhausted during the count, 12.8% of the total – pretty good considering the novelty of the system and the limit of five preferences. Compare, for example, the Upper Hunter by-election in New South Wales in May, also with 13 candidates, where 30.2% exhausted.

Barring something quite unexpected, Adams will go on to win the election to succeed two-term incumbent Bill de Blasio, and New York’s municipal government will continue along in its creaky accustomed fashion. Preferential voting gives him the security of knowing that he has at least a degree of broad support in his party, but whether it will do much to soften the internal conflicts among the Democrats remains an open question.


2 thoughts on “New York goes preferential

  1. ‘But since Democrats hugely outnumber Republicans in the city, the real election is usually the Democrat primary, held last month.’

    You’d think, wouldn’t you? And yet, the winner of the Democratic primary has been beaten in five of the last seven mayoral elections (four times by a Republican, and once by an ex-Republican Independent running with the support of the Republican Party).


    1. That’s true, but Bloomberg is rather a special case because before his election he had always been a Democrat, and indeed became one again after he left office. And prior to Giuliani the Dems had won six elections straight.


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