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How the ranked choice voting system works in New York City mayor’s race

The system is used across the world, and has been tried in other American elections. But it will be the first time it’s implemented in a metropolis with this many candidates.

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New York City mayoral candidate Maya Wiley speaks at the unveiling of a mural in Chinatown on June 20, 2021 in New York City. Kathryn Garcia and Andrew Yang also attended the event in the lead-up to primary Election Day on June 22. Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images

Today is technically just a single-party primary election for the next mayor of New York City. But in a city with 3.7 million registered Democrats and less than 600,000 Republicans, it’s the de facto election for the next mayor of the Big Apple.

And it will double as the largest use of ranked-choice voting ever for a municipal election, which is throwing the polling and prognostication into chaos, as well as the actual race being pretty crazy too. In other words... fun for handicappers!

There are 13 people on the ballot for mayor, but in an unusual twist, this will be the first test of ranked-choice voting for a major American office with a massive slate of candidates. Ranked-choice voting (RCV) has been used before, but never with a field this big for a job this important.

What is ranked-choice voting?

Ever walk into a voting booth with a huge slate of candidates and want to vote for someone that shares your ideals and values, but also knowing that person has little-to-no chance of winning? With RCV, you can cast a ballot for your true favorite without wasting your vote.

The process has voters rank all candidates on the ballot in their order preference. So if there are eight candidates on a ballot, voters choose their favorite as No. 1, their second-favorite as No. 2, and so on all the way down to No. 8.

When all ballots are tallied, all the No. 1 choices from all voters are counted. If no candidate surpasses the 50% vote threshold, the candidate with the least first-place votes is eliminated, and voters who selected the now-removed candidate as their top choice now have their second choice added to the vote total of their second-choice candidate.

This process is repeated round-by-round until one candidate gets a majority of votes. And that’s it, you have a winner.

The 2010 mayor’s race in Oakland, California shows how this system can change outcomes. Jean Quan was elected despite getting just 24.47% of the first-choice votes in a 10-candidate field. The leader on election night was Don Perata with 33.73%, but Quan was much more well-liked as the second-or-third-or-fourth-of-fifth candidate of more voters. So when all the other candidates had been eliminated via the round-by-round process, Quan had 53,897 votes to 51,872 for Perata.

As Quan was much more backup choice than Perata, the belief of RCV advocates is she’ll have more support from the community than her more polarizing fellow finalist in the election.

Maine has moved to the system for all federal elections, though it wasn’t needed in the 2020 Presidential election won by Joe Biden. Alaska will use RCV beginning with the midterms in 2022 after the top four candidates are chosen. And it’s used in many municipal elections across the country from Berkeley, California to Saint Paul, Minnesota already.

Todays’ NYC Mayoral primary isn’t asking voters to rank all 13 candidates, just their top five. So while it is mathematically possible no candidate would be able to cross the 50% threshold, that’s highly unlikely to be the outcome. Only eight candidates are getting more than 1% in polling, so the five boroughs should find a mayor with the support of the majority of Democrats. Which is something current mayor Bill de Blasio hasn’t had for quite a long time.

And with apologies to rapper Paperboy Prince, we don’t like his chances of getting to Gracie Mansion today.

Right now Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is the leader in polling with around 28%-29%. While where he actually resides has become an issue in the campaign, the former NYPD cop is polling ahead in a race where the No. 1 issue amongst voters is crime.

Former Democratic Presidential candidate Andrew Yang is in second with around 20% support, and former New York City Commissioner of Sanitation Kathryn Garcia is running on a platform of executive competence to about 15% in polling. An endorsement from popular progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has pushed Maya Wiley, an activist lawyer and television talking head as well as vice president at the New School, into double digits as well.

Right now at political betting site PredictIt, shares of Adams are trading at .66, with Garcia at .20, Yang at .12, and Wiley at .10. It looks like a four-horse race, but the winner should be determined by the second-and-third choices of voters, and how that breaks is hard for pollsters to survey.

At European site BetFair Adams is running about -200 as well, with Garcia listed at +300, and both Yang and Wiley checking in at +700.

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