NEW YORK — Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers head to the polls Tuesday to pick the next mayor of the nation’s biggest city. But the closing days of the election, and perhaps the weeks that follow, may as well be a referendum on the ballot itself.
The city’s new ranked-choice voting system, which will allow voters to pick their top five candidates in order of preference, has upended standard political assumptions since the start of the campaign. Now, a racially-tinged battle has erupted over the process, with the leading candidate leveling accusations of voter disenfranchisement after two of his opponents formed a last-minute alliance to bolster their own campaigns.
The claims by frontrunner Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and former NYPD captain, have laid the groundwork for him to contest the results if the race doesn’t go his way — an echo of the fallout from the 2020 presidential election.
Adams, who is Black, implied the alliance between Kathryn Garcia and Andrew Yang was a form of voter suppression, though such arrangements are one of the intended outcomes of ranked-choice voting. Supporters of the borough president went as far as to say the move was intended to “disenfranchise Black voters,” a claim made in statements distributed by the Adams campaign.
The controversy has led to uncertainty about how the outcome of the election will be received, since no ranked-choice tallies will be released until a week after election day and it could be weeks until a final call is made.
Asked Monday if he would accept the results of the election, Adams didn’t make any promises.
“Can you assure voters that’s not what you’re doing here?” a reporter asked, referencing former President Donald Trump’s claims that the presidential election was stolen.
“Yes,” Adams replied. “I assure voters that no one is gonna steal the election from me.”
But experts in ranked-choice voting, which has never been tried in an election of this size, argue Adams’ concerns are overblown — that in most cases the person leading the pack in the polls and the one who emerges with the most first-place votes on election night wins. In fact, Adams may be turning off some voters by casting doubt on the integrity of the election, they say.
“There have been 429 elections in the U.S. that have used ranked-choice voting. In all but 15, the candidate with the most number of first place votes won,” said Alex Clemens, a veteran Bay Area political strategist and lobbyist with Lighthouse Public Affairs. “It’s unusual when that doesn’t happen.”
The dispute about the election process comes after more than six months of concerted campaigning, much of it from behind Zoom screens as the city was still under pandemic lockdown. After a summer of protests against police brutality and chants of “Defund the Police,” a surge in shootings and rash of hate crimes has put public safety at the forefront of voters’ minds, boosting Adams’ anti-crime appeal.
Yang, whose presidential fame helped him dominate early polls, receded as Adams took the lead within the last few months. Garcia’s message of steady management, and endorsements by the New York Times and Daily News helped her surge to first and second place in some recent polls. And Maya Wiley is riding a late wave of support from the city’s far-left, with progressive luminaries like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams backing her campaign in recent weeks.
The new voting system and the rapidly changing dynamics at the top of the field have deprived Adams of the usual comfort a frontrunner would take into an election.
Rob Richie, the president of FairVote, a national nonprofit that advocates for electoral reform, said he was surprised by the vitriol coming from Adams, considering he stands to do pretty well in ranked-choice voting.
“If I was his campaign, I wouldn’t have done some of the same things they’ve done in the last few days,” Richie said. “The more you sort of separate yourself from other people, the more risky that is in a ranked-choice voting strategy.”
The Adams campaign has run a scorched earth operation since Yang, a former presidential candidate, teamed up with Garcia, the former city sanitation commissioner, in the final days of an unruly election season.
Adams said Monday that his competitors were tone deaf for beginning their alliance on Juneteenth, a commemoration of the end of slavery that was recently made a federal holiday.
“African Americans are very clear on voter suppression. We know about the poll tax. We know about the fight that we’ve had historically, how you had to go through hurdles to vote,” he said on CNN. “So if [my supporters] feel, based on their perception, that it suppressed the vote, then I respect their feeling.”
Ashley Sharpton, daughter of the Rev. Al Sharpton, said in a statement issued by the Adams campaign that the alliance was “a cynical attempt by Garcia and Yang to disenfranchise Black voters. We didn’t march in the streets all summer last year and organize for generations just so that some rich businessman and bureaucrat who don’t relate to the masses can steal the election from us.”
In early June, well before the Yang-Garcia alliance, Adams had already begun to sow doubt about the ranked-choice process.
“What happens to everyday New Yorkers? The Board of Elections betrayed us once again and didn’t properly educate and get information out,” he said at a Lower Manhattan campaign stop. “It would be lucky if we get these results by January 18. We don’t know how long this is going to take. I’m really troubled about the outcome of this, I hope the counting does not equal the rollout.”
Under the new voting system, adopted by referendum in 2019, if no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote initially, the last-place candidate is eliminated and their supporters’ votes are redistributed to the voter’s second choice. That process continues until someone gets a majority of all votes.
“It’s been held up as a voting rights remedy and it’s been used in many diverse cities,” Richie said. “What it does, in kind of its most straightforward way, is it encourages candidates to reach out to more diverse groups of people.”
In 2018, London Breed, the first Black woman elected mayor of San Francisco, faced a similar scenario to what Adams is facing in New York.
“A Black candidate was leading the polls, and a white candidate and an Asian candidate formed an alliance,” Clemens said. “Ultimately the Black candidate, London Breed, prevailed.”
There are exceptions: In a 2018 Congressional race in Maine, an incumbent Republican was defeated despite winning the most first-choice votes. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, won by picking up more down-ballot votes from two independent candidates. Mayor’s races in Oakland and San Leandro, Calif., and Burlington, Vt., have also been won by candidates who weren’t in first place in initial voting. But those instances represent less than 4 percent of the ranked-choice elections that have been conducted in the U.S.
“The headline for ranked-choice voting is that 96 percent of the time, the leader prevails,” Clemens said.
Other Black leaders condemned Adams’ attempts to inject racial politics into the maneuver by Yang and Garcia.
“It is disingenuous and dangerous to play on the very real and legitimate fears of bigotry and voter disenfranchisement by pretending it’s present where it’s not,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who is supporting Wiley, former counsel to de Blasio.
Wiley, who is vying to be the first Black woman elected mayor, also decried Adams’ comments as “cynical and insensitive.”
“The leadership we need right now is a leadership that says, ‘Trust in our voting system because it works.’ We are not the city where we are suppressing the vote,” she said at a campaign stop in Washington Heights Monday.
Sal Albanese, a former City Council member who was appointed by Adams to the charter revision commission that proposed ranked choice voting for the ballot, said the borough president showed little interest in the process at the time.
“I really never heard from Eric,” said Albanese, who said he attempted to brief Adams but had five scheduled phone calls canceled. “I tried to brief him throughout the process, but it was radio silence.”
Albanese, who is running for Council again, has endorsed Yang.
“I think it’s unfounded,” he said of Adams’ criticisms of the Yang-Garcia alliance. “In my view, it’s a cynical political move. Ranked-choice voting, he understands it fully. He knows that there are alliances that are made.”
Jesse Naranjo, Janaki Chadha and Sally Goldenberg contributed to this report.