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New York City’s crowded Democratic mayoral primary will not only determine who’s likely to take on the job of leading the country’s most populous city into post-pandemic life, it will also be a major test for ranked-choice voting, which the city is using for the first time in a citywide election.

Ranked-choice voting has been growing in popularity and covers jurisdictions now representing over 9.2 million voters, according to FairVote, a nonpartisan group that advocates for election reforms. New York City is by far the largest of those jurisdictions, with about 5 million active registered voters as of February, including over 3.3 million registered Democrats who may participate in the Democratic mayoral primary. 

In 2019, with nearly 75% of the vote, New York City voters overwhelmingly approved a ranked-choice voting system for primary elections in mayoral, city council and other municipal races. One of the main advantages of ranked-choice voting is that it replaced the city’s costly, low-turnout runoff elections when the leading candidate did not win 40% support in the primary. 

Screen grab from New York Board of Elections video

How does ranked-choice voting work?

Voters will be able to rank up to five candidates for mayor and other municipal races on the ballot. Other elections, like the high-profile Manhattan district attorney’s race, will not use ranked-choice voting. 

The ballot will list candidates in a column on the left. Voters will mark their first choice in the column next to the candidate’s name. There will be four additional columns for voters to rank their second, third, fourth and fifth choices. There’s no need to rank five candidates for a ballot to count. 

If a voter makes a mistake while casting a ballot in person, like accidentally ranking two candidates second, the voter can get a new ballot at the polling place to fix the problem or leave the ballot as it is, and it will only impact the race that wasn’t properly voted. Mail-in voters won’t have this option. 

Any candidate winning a majority of first-choice votes wins the primary. 

Short of a majority, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes will be eliminated and supporters’ second choices will be redistributed to the remaining candidates. If a candidate still does not have a majority, the one with the fewest remaining votes is eliminated, and supporters’ second or third choices are awarded to the remaining candidates. The process of elimination and redistribution continues until a candidate wins a majority. 

Where has ranked-choice voting been used?

By FairVote’s count, over 428 elections have used ranked-choice voting across 26 jurisdictions since 2004, when San Francisco started using it in municipal elections. Maine uses the system for many of its elections, and Alaska voters passed a ballot initiative last year to adopt ranked-choice voting for federal offices and many state races. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski’s reelection race will employ ranked-choice voting in the 2022 midterm elections. 

But given the size of New York City and an election taking place in an otherwise quiet political year, the system’s advocates are well aware that this will be a major test for ranked-choice voting. 

Rob Richie, the CEO of FairVote, said the size of New York City and number of candidates in the race makes it a “national barometer” for how ranked-choice will work “under a lot of pressure.” While he doesn’t think its fate is necessarily tied to New York City, he acknowledged the mayoral election would likely have an impact. 

“If New York is seen as going badly, a lot of other officials will say, ‘wait a second, we’ve got a lot more tire-kicking to happen,'” Richie said. And if it goes well, that “will speed its spread because it’s going to be high-profile.”

Educating voters

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the city is educating voters about the new system before the primary. In April, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city would spend $15 million on voter education, including advertisements on multiple platforms, materials printed in more than 18 languages and direct outreach to voters.

New York City held four city council special elections with ranked-choice voting earlier this year. Seventy-five percent of voters said they were familiar with ranked-choice voting before they cast a ballot, and 95% of those surveyed said they thought the ballot was easy to fill out, according to exit polling by Edison Research for Common Cause. But those elections had fairly low turnout, and voters in city council special elections are often some of the most engaged and experienced. 

Susan Lerner, the executive director at Common Cause New York, said those polling numbers show the ballot design is intuitive for voters. Still, she knows it will take a major effort to inform millions of potential voters of the changes. 

“I don’t think any of us can guarantee that 100%, every single voter in the city will be aware before they get to the polling place, but that’s our goal,” Lerner said.

For voters who haven’t heard about the new process when they show up at the polls, there will be signs and instructions on the privacy sleeve to guide voters, Lerner said. 

City Councilman Eric Dinowtiz, who represents part of the Bronx, won one of the ranked-choice voting special elections. He said community groups, volunteers and candidates had to shoulder a lot of the voter education efforts in his race. He wishes voter education started after the ballot initiative was passed but is glad the city is getting more involved. Voters in his district had mixed experiences with the new system, but he’s hopeful that the mass-education efforts will reach all corners of the electorate. 

“I would not give my students a test without preparing them,” Dinowitz, a former teacher, told CBS News. “We have a job as a city to make sure that our residents are well-educated.”

Former Democratic congressional candidate Suraj Patel, who lost a contentious primary in 2020 that took weeks to sort out, said he isn’t concerned about ranked-choice voting causing administration issues. But he is worried about voter education.

“A lot of people haven’t been fully educated as to how to conduct a ranked-choice election,” Patel said, referring to voter education efforts. “There’s a lot of confusion and there’s a lot of misinformation about it.”

Be prepared to wait

Because of New York’s election laws, it will likely take several days before we know who won the Democratic mayoral primary. Primary day is June 22, but absentee and military ballots can arrive until June 29. The deadline for voters to fix any curable defects, such as a signature issue, with an absentee ballot is July 9, according to the New York City Board of Elections.  

Unofficial results are expected to be released on primary night, likely from the first round of tabulation. After that round, election officials will have to stop counting and won’t be able to restart until after the July 9 deadline, according to the New York City Board of Elections. That means it’s likely voters won’t know who won the election for weeks because of the rules governing absentee ballots. The New York City Board of Elections commissioners will meet next week and could alter the timeline for reporting results. 

Presently, a candidate could have a slight lead immediately after the first round of ballots is tabulated but may not end up winning the race after all votes are counted weeks later. Five of the eight candidates who were on the debate stage last week said if this happens to them, they will accept the results of the election. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former Wall Street executive Ray McGuire and New York City comptroller Scott Stringer did not respond. 

In the special city council elections, election officials took several days to hand-count ballots in the races that required additional rounds because ranked-choice tabulating software had not been certified by the state. 

The state Board of Elections has been testing a tabulating software to handle the ranked-choice voting tabulation process for the June primary, but it’s still not certified. That software would significantly speed up the counting. The board is scheduled to meet May 25 and could approve the software during that meeting. 

The state Board of Elections didn’t respond to requests for comment about the timing of results or the tabulation software. A spokesman for the board told The City that the “certification process is on schedule.”