Charting the Mayoral Maze—Part III: A Postscript
With the Democrats’ primary returns all but fully tabulated and with Eric Adams declared the winner of the mayoral primary, now is the best time for a postscript on charting the 2021 Mayoral Maze. Let’s focus first on how the mayoral primary campaign closed and its derivative impact on the outcome. Second, what do these results teach us about the interplay of ideology, race, gender and ethnicity in terms of their impact on New York City’s Democratic primaries. Third, let’s address the question of the rumored decline of the influence of the editorial endorsements from the major papers, which clearly has been refuted by this year’s voters. Fourth, let’s assess how Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is likely to stand with voters going forward.
The closing sprint almost changed the outcome of this primary contest. In the last week of the campaign, Eric Adams who throughout the campaign had shown both discipline and skill in his messaging, made two significant mistakes which almost cost him his hard earned victory. But in the end, Adams had too much momentum going into the in person voting (both the early voting and the June 22nd primary day voting), for those mistakes to alter the outcome.
Adams initial mistake was to let things get too hot between himself and Maya Wiley in the last week of the campaign, over their differences on policing. It was pretty clear by June 14th, that Wiley’s cavalry charge against Adams on policing policy had not shaken Adams’ hold on the broad mass of outer borough Black voters, though Wiley wound up making gains in pockets of upper Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn. By flashing his anger towards Wiley, over the closing week, Adams no doubt turned off some of Wiley’s supporters, including younger Black voters. That cost Adams in the final round of the RCV count, when 72 percent of Wiley’s first place votes, allocated under RCV, went to Garcia rather than Adams. That final RCV count upset the conventional wisdom which held that Black voters would uniformly rank Adams, Wiley and McGuire high on their ballots.
In fact, according to the Edison exit poll commissioned by Common Cause, a full quarter of Black voters only cast a vote for a single mayoral candidate (vs. single choice voting by only 10 percent of White voters). We don’t know for sure if the cause for that higher rate of single candidate voting among Black voters was due more to a mistrust of RCV or a growing generation gap among Black voters, but it almost assuredly resulted in Adams getting fewer second and third choice votes from younger Blacks, while Wiley got a lot fewer older Black votes than conventional wisdom had projected. But we can safely surmise that Adams inflaming those tensions with Wiley rhetorically, cost him in the last week of the campaign, when Wiley turned out to be the last candidate eliminated in the final round of RCV.
Adams second costly mistake was attacking Yang and Garcia for campaigning together that last weekend. Until that attack, Adams was poised to get the lion’s share of Yang’s voters second choice votes. The attack on Yang also made Adams look rattled and it clearly took away from having the spotlight on what should have been Adams upbeat closing pitch to Hispanic and white ethnic voters. When Yang was eliminated in the RCV count, about 38 percent of his votes went to Garcia (which probably came directly from Adams attack on Yang among those who voted in person on June 22nd), 31 percent went to Adams, but only 11 percent went to Wiley. My hunch is that Adams did a lot better under RCV, with those Yang voters who voted early in person or by absentee ballot, cast before those attacks on Yang and Garcia over the campaign’s last weekend. The net effect in both the preliminary and the second RCV count was that Garcia jumped ahead of Wiley, only in the RCV round where Yang was eliminated. My other surmise, is that as Yang’s support dropped from the low 20 percent range from the May public polling data, to the 12 percent level he ended up with when the votes were counted, a higher quotient of Yang’s support came from Asian voters, who reacted protectively against Adams’ attacks on Yang in the closing hours of the campaign. In short, the Asian voters who voted in person on June 22nd, probably provided a late RCV boost to Garcia, which together with the RCV landslide coming Garcia’s way from Wiley’s voters, reduced Adams’ near double digit lead among first place votes over Wiley, to a photo finish 1 percent margin for Adams over Garcia.
These mistakes led directly to Adams opening the door to Garcia’s smart strategy and mistake free counterpunching tactics, all of which was perfectly tapered to RCV. Which in turn maximized the aura of competence and managerial excellence that permeated Garcia’s persona over the course of the campaign (galvanized by the editorial board endorsements from the Times and the Daily News). Meanwhile, the discipline that Adams and his campaign had shown until the last few days of the campaign had given Adams a lead of nearly 100,000 among first place votes in a large turnout primary, which enabled Adams to squeak by Garcia by 7,153 votes, once the RCV tabulations were run correctly by the Board of Elections.
A word on turnout. While the final numbers will change slightly, once the final count on cured absentee ballots and the final disposition on how many affidavit (provisional) ballots are allowed in are tabulated, here is what we have now: a turnout of just under 930,000 votes. That represents 191,197 early in person votes, just under 615,000 in person votes cast on June 22nd and a little over 125,000 absentee votes. Before those three tributaries came together, many projected and some even mistakenly reported this as a low turnout primary. But when all three streams of voters merged (roughly 66 percent of the total primary vote came from in person votes cast on June 22nd, about 20 percent from early in person voting, with 14 percent coming in by absentee ballot) this turnout pool wound up being on the high end of past Democratic primary turnouts in NYC.
Empirically, a low mayoral turnout in a NYC Democratic primary is one that is under 675,000 votes. A moderate mayoral turnout totals 700,000-825,000 votes. A high turnout primary is anything above 850,000 votes. It is worth noting that we have had only two one million plus Democratic mayoral turnouts (the 1973 run-off where Beame streaked ahead of Badillo and the 1989 primary where Dinkins beat Koch without triggering a run-off). So this 2021 mayoral turnout is at the high end of mayoral turnouts historically (very reminiscent of the 910,000 turnout in the initial 1977 primary ultimately won in a run-off by Ed Koch over Mario Cuomo). The last Democratic primary for an open mayoral seat was 2013, when the turnout was 691,000 votes. Thus, no matter which way you slice it, the 2021 Democratic primary for Mayor of NYC was a high turnout contest, whether the final tally stays at roughly 930,000 votes or if the final count approaches or surpasses 940,000 votes.
Adams’ campaign had done the best job of preparing for a large turnout primary, especially in terms of first place votes. Consequently, Adams’ miscalculation on messaging the last 5 or so days of the campaign, broke his campaign’s stride coming down the home stretch of this race, but Adams was still the first to cross the tape at the finish line. In fact, Adams’ late messaging miscues created suspense, without ruining Adams’ well- executed campaign strategy predicated upon building a Black base, sustained by a strong close among Hispanics ,with just enough support from Asian and White ethnic voters (Jewish and White Catholic voters in the outer boroughs). What Adams liked to call his being a blue collar Mayor for the outer boroughs prevailed (Adams carried Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and SI, losing only Manhattan to Garcia).
Most importantly, the electoral math underlying this primary, suggests a governing calculus for a successful Adams mayoralty. For Adams to successfully ride the tide of this blue collar outer borough coalition, advocating both justice and safety in policing and fighting crime (which sustained his clear lead among first choice votes), he needs to avoid the undertow reflected in the footing underneath the Garcia and Wiley campaigns. Garcia secured the lion’s share of the hunt for second and third place support under RCV, suggesting a high priority from voters for managerial competence. Meanwhile, Wiley’s bi-racial appeal to younger progressive voters, provides a cautionary note suggesting that as Mayor, Eric Adams would be wise to avoid complacency, given the passion of younger progressive voters of all races and ethnicities for reform of policing. The enduring lesson of this primary may just turn out to be that while Democratic voters as their first choice clearly wanted Eric Adams to sail to success in this primary, Adams as Mayor would be smart to treat the footing secured by Garcia and Wiley, with just under half of primary voters under this RCV system, as a riverbed not to be ignored.
The second point worth analyzing, therefore becomes what do these results in the mayoral contest, the results from the Comptroller’s race as well as the City Council contests, tell us about the equilibrium points in the Democrats’ primary electorate in NYC, particularly along ideological, racial, ethnic, gender and generational divides. In turn, those equilibrium points can reveal where the balance of power lies in Democratic primaries.
Regrettably, there was no consortium public exit poll done for the newspapers by Edison, to help us break down the electoral shares cast by the key racial, ethnic and religious groups, also broken down by gender, age and ideology and how voters within those voting blocs prioritized issues and rated the candidates. The only exit polling data released was the Edison survey Common Cause commissioned geared to RCV and how voters used the new RCV system. That data on RCV was quite important, but it provided an incomplete template which will slow down our ability to produce a quick but credible anatomy of this year’s Democratic primary electorate in NYC.
Nevertheless, we can make certain educated guesses when overlaying the maps of which candidates carried which neighborhoods based upon the raw electoral data. It appears that the Black vote was strong and overall the outer boroughs drove the in person voting, while older and more highly educated voters were more inclined to use absentee ballots particularly in Manhattan and Queens. Voters 45 and older in age , seemed to take back the controlling share of the primary electorate that younger voters had contested in the 2020 presidential primary vote here in NYC, back in the middle of the pandemic. The White vote appears to have kept above a 40 percent share of the total vote, not dropping towards a share of 35 percent, where it is headed demographically.
The share cast by Hispanic voters probably dipped under its usual 20 percent share, but its late break to Adams proved decisive in the final outcome. Going forward, energizing the Hispanic vote, first towards a quarter and ultimately towards a thirty percent share where it is headed demographically, will require rebuilding the pipeline of viable citywide Hispanic candidates. Latina candidates may prove to be effective breakthrough candidates for Hispanic success, in terms of future citywide officials, reflecting their recent success in legislative elections at the local, state and federal level here in New York. No one should be surprised if Melissa Mark Viverito’s call for a Latina Speaker for the City Council , promoting balance in terms of gender, geography and ethnicity, does not begin to resonate within the Hispanic community.
The Asian vote probably hit and may have pushed just above the 10 percent share level (2009 was the only previous election where the Asian vote hit the 10 percent share level when Asian voters rallied to support John Liu’s breakthrough victory in the Comptroller’s contest). Yang was not able to add another ethnic or racial voting bloc to his base, unlike Liu’s successful political engineering did with Black voters in 2009. My own sense, is that the Asian vote is not likely to drop below the 10 percent share of the overall vote level very often anymore, so that its one time ceiling will soon become its floor, in relation to the other racial , religious and ethnic voting blocs. Asian voters showed purposeful political sophistication this year, not just in backing Andrew Yang’s mayoral candidacy , but in playing a significant role for Garcia and Adams under the RCV system and finally in dramatically expanding its ranks by electing at least 6 Asian members to the City Council. The sheer demographics of the ever growing and diverse range of South Asian and East Asian communities and neighborhoods, will almost assuredly lead to a steady increase in the political influence of the diverse Asian communities and their elected leaders. The history of ethnic and racial politics in New York is pretty clear, once a community flexes its political muscles , by making a real breakthrough , it rarely retreats back into political obscurity. One suspects that 2021 will be seen in retrospect, as the year when the Asian vote reached just such a breakthrough moment. In the future, any public polling of NYC, which does not have a sufficient sample of Asian voters to distinctly measure the opinions of Asian voters, can’t be said to be adequately measuring public opinion in NYC.
In terms of ideology, the left wing of the Democratic party (whether dubbed progressives, or far left , including the Democratic Socialists) is clearly ascending, but it is not ascendant in Democratic primaries, not only nationally, but here in New York. Over the last 15 years the share of the primary vote cast in New York, by what I like to call the pure progressives has grown from about a 20 percent share of the total vote in New York primaries to about a third of that vote. That rise marks tremendous growth. But too many in the media have bought into the inaccurate hype generated by the progressives themselves, who characterize their ascending growth, as an ascendant position. Garnering a third of the vote, is not controlling an ascendant majority of the vote, especially in an RCV system.
This year it was the candidates pursuing less ideologically driven platforms, some might say geared to older more moderate and/or pragmatic voters, across the racial and ethnic divides, who were in the driver’s seat. The fact that Adams had a clear hold among first place votes, while Garcia dominated the RCV count, speaks volumes on how the candidates speaking to the practical concerns of a broad range of voters from blue collar minority workers, to highly educated, often affluent women voters and older white ethnics, as well as Asian voters, prevailed over a splintered progressive field. When the Stringer campaign was buffeted and then functionally taken down by the allegations of sexual harassment, the progressives lost their best hope of winning this mayoral election. Stringer alone among the progressives had the required mix of fundraising resources, institutional support (e.g., labor unions) and endorsements within the Hispanic community, to compete with Adams for the lead and to block first Yang and then Garcia’s rise.
The problem is that the progressives have come to believe their own hype, echoed by the media. Consequently, progressives have campaigned as if they are an ascendant majority (which they are not), rather than as what they are, an ascending third of the primary vote, requiring bridge building to other constituencies to win primaries, particularly under an RCV system where you must frontload your majority coalition to prevail. But instead of building larger coalitions, especially given that the NYC electorate is rooted in a clear minority majority (heading from 55 percent of the voters being people of color a decade ago, towards the 60 percent threshold where the aggregate of Black, Hispanic, Asian and bi-racial voters will be cast by 2025), progressive candidates have been focused all too much on trying to prove who is the most progressive in making their case to voters. At times, it seems that progressive candidates feel they must win the social networking primary as the foundation of their campaign. Meanwhile, Eric Adams is correct, the people who drive the outcome of NYC’s primary elections are more concerned about their Social Security checks, than their non-existent twitter accounts.
Take the major race the progressives won, Brad Lander for Comptroller: Lander did a beautiful job of securing the progressive third (buttressed by the votes of traditional liberals in Manhattan thanks to the Times’ endorsement) to secure an 8.5 percent lead among first place votes. But when the RCV count kicked in, and the second and third choice votes among older white ethnics, Blacks and Hispanics were tabulated, as Iscol, Weprin, Parker, Benjamin and Caruso-Cabrera were eliminated, Lander’s margin shrank to 4 percent over Corey Johnson. Ultimately, the boost that put Lander into orbit was not the endorsement of AOC, but the editorial endorsement of the New York Times. Lander had languished for over a month, after AOC gave him her endorsement, but Lander took off like a rocket once his TV ads smartly trumpeted his winning the Times endorsement.
The iron triangle that has long dominated the outcome of Democratic primaries, remained the determining factor in the 2021 primary: with the minority majority at the base, and older white ethnics along one shorter side, with the longer side being highly educated professional women. In the mayoral race, Adams and Garcia cornered all three sides of this iron triangle and consequently they dominated the first and final rounds of the vote counting. In the Comptroller’s race, Lander was able to crack into that iron triangle through the highly educated professional women and narrowly won. But if progressives continue to think that all they have to do to win citywide and statewide primaried is merely to unite the progressive base and cater to younger voters, while short changing the concerns of older voters, especially the Black and Hispanic middle class in the outer boroughs, they will continue to lose statewide and large urban primaries. For that strategic miscalculation is the fundamental reason pure progressive candidates have consistently lost primaries since 2016, here in New York and around the nation (e.g., New Jersey, Virginia, Texas, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and usually even in California and Massachusetts as reflected respectively in Feinstein’s 2018 and Biden’s 2020 primary victories).
Progressives do very well in low turnout primaries with minority candidates carrying their flag against long time incumbents (AOC against Crowley in 2018 and India Walton against Mayor Byron Brown in Buffalo this year), but progressives do less well in high turnout primaries, where the incumbent or moderate front runner is not caught sleeping at the switch (Carper in Delaware and Cuomo in New York in 2018 or Biden on Super Tuesday and in states like Michigan and Ohio in 2020). Unless and until progressives can carry a majority of minority voters, they will not win primaries in cities like New York and the major states in gubernatorial, senatorial and presidential primaries. When progressives splinter their third of the vote as they did among at least three candidates in this year’s mayoral primary, they ignore the advice of the original progressive Theodore Roosevelt, to their own detriment. For instead of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, the progressives in New York have been speaking loudly and wielding a small stick in citywide and statewide primaries.
On the other hand, in district races for the State Legislature and the City Council, as well as some Congressional races (though by no means the majority of New York’s Congressional races) the progressives have done much better, when they can use changing political demographics to produce upset victories. Particularly when they put forward vital, vibrant and energetic minority candidates to carry the progressive banner (especially female Black and Latina candidates). Clearly the progressive pulse is beating stronger and stronger in these legislative races, but it is not yet apparent how much of this success has been driven by ideology and how much has been driven by the desire among voters in districts combining gentrification and long standing minority strongholds, to give younger often highly educated minority women candidates a chance to govern. One suspects it is a combination of both factors, which also reflects the aspirational thrust driving legislative races, versus the more pragmatic yardsticks that voters tend to use in races for Mayor and Governor.
In terms of gender, after the 2017 City Council primaries many properly bemoaned the declining numbers of successful female candidates on the City Council. This year, the growth of Black, Latina and Asian (both from South Asian and East Asian backgrounds) women elected to the City Council could change the dynamics of the race for who will get elected the next Speaker. Women are now a clear majority of the City Council (currently 26 women lead the primary counts out of a 51 member City council and when all the counting is done that number could hit 28 or even 29 female members). With the three citywide elected officials likely to be three men from Brooklyn, it will be interesting to see if these electoral victories for female candidates generates a push from within the City Council for a female Speaker who provides balance, by knitting together a more representative leadership quilt among the diverse patches (ideological, racial, ethnic, and geographic) that make up both the Council and the City it represents (given that just about 60 percent of the Democrat’s primary electorate is usually cast by women voters).
Borough rivalries have usually driven the outcome of the Speaker sweepstakes, but it will be interesting to see if gender and ethnicity have an enhanced currency in the selection of the next Speaker. All this will test the political and networking skills of the candidates for Speaker, but also the next Mayor and the County Chairs, as well as the labor leaders whose guidance the members of the City Council often seek in making their leadership selections. The new conventional wisdom holds that the incoming Mayor will determine who the next Speaker will be. I suspect because he is wise in the ways of legislative bodies, that a Mayor Adams will seek to genuinely influence, rather than to direct, a selection process for the next Speaker of the City Council, with multiple points of influence. Not to mention that the incoming City Council may not want to be sheep in search of mayoral herding.
The third factor worth studying is the common refrain that has been increasingly on the tongues of pundits and campaign consultants, namely that the editorial board endorsements of the major papers no longer count. To those who believe that, I say let them come to study the denouement of the 2021 Democratic mayoral primary in NYC. The results refute this postulate. Yes, print readership of newspapers is way down. And yes, in 2013 when all three major editorial boards endorsed Christine Quinn and she finished weakly, dropping down to third place, it led some to conclude that editorial boards no longer counted. But that year lacked the real equation for the influence of editorial boards: when the voters believe that an election is important (that their votes will have consequences) , but they don’t know the candidates very well, they will look for confirming guidance from the editorial boards. In 2013, that equation did not come into play, but it clearly did in this 2021 mayoral primary. All three editorial boards, the Times, the Daily News and the Post played major roles in the rise of Garcia, the decline of Yang’s candidacy and Adams’ ultimate victory in this primary.
Let us take a step back to see the false postulate for the end of editorial board influence and impact articulated by Andrew Yang’s lead political consultant, Brad Tusk. After calling his candidate Mayor Andrew Yang an “empty vessel” early in the campaign, which in boxing terms put cut over Andrew Yang’s eye that repeatedly bled every time that line was repeated, Tusk proved how little he knows about mayoral politics in New York, when he gave this hugely hubristic quote to Harry Siegel for the latter’s Daily News column on Sunday May 9th, 2021. Tusk said: “The Times is coming after us so hard because on some level they recognize if we win, it’s a repudiation of the notion that their coverage or their endorsement matters. I believe that the institutional levers of power don’t matter anymore….If you look at the other candidates’ campaigns, they’re all being run in pursuit of endorsements as if endorsements still translated into votes.”
Now let’s look at what happened, in the wake of Yang making unforced error after unforced error (delineated both in my piece for Empire Report charting the Mayoral Maze—Part II on June 9th and Dana Rubenstein’s excellent piece the Times on June 30th) the Times gave Garcia a full throated endorsement that went up on line on May 10th, stayed up that whole week and was in the Sunday print edition on May 16th, the same day the Daily News provided their endorsement to Garcia, with a front page picture announcing a warm full page endorsement in their print edition. Those endorsements not only explicitly trumpeted Garcia’s credentials, but they directly exposed what was later tagged as Yang’s knowledge gap. That led to the sharp and steady rise in Garcia’s standing in the eyes of voters that was only intermittently grasped by the relatively sparse and not always accurate public polling data. It was not that the ed boards were taking vengeance against Yang due to Tusk, instead it seemed clear that the editorial board’s viewed Yang as a shallow if amiable dilettante who lacked the qualifications to be Mayor. When these editorial boards weighed in, the reaction of voters proved that Tusk was profoundly wrong in calling the ed boards impotent factors in the politics of New York, precisely because the endorsements of the Times, the Daily News and the Post can still matter quite a bit.
But the damage to Yang in retrospect was fatal. The rise of Garcia, cut Yang off from his overriding need to consolidate his support among a broad array of white voters (especially the huge bloc of highly educated professional women), which was the bridge Yang needed, from his relatively thin numerically speaking triad of support from Asian, non-ideological hipsters and his support among orthodox and Hasidic voters, before being able to build his victory bridge to Hispanic voters. From Tusk’s perspective ,the sad epitaph of the Yang campaign, became Yang morphing from the front-runner who condescendingly in public teased Garcia about becoming his first Deputy Mayor back in late April, into his endorsing Garcia as his second choice, with no reciprocation, over the campaign’s last weekend, as if Yang was reduced to holding her coat at those closing rallies of the campaign’s last three days.
Tusk should have remembered the old nursery rhyme before he brought such misplaced arrogance to attacking the editorial boards in his interview with Harry Siegel, it is never wise to tempt, much less threaten, Mother Nature. And when the Daily News editorial board joined the Times in endorsing Garcia, the value was far more than the sum of its parts. In fact it was reminiscent of the old functional editorial board alliance between Dorothy Schiff’s Post and the Sulzberger’s Times which dominated NY politics from the 1950’s through the early 1970’s, until Rupert Murdoch took over the Post as 1976 turned into 1977.
Speaking of the Post, its endorsement of Adams in print on May 10th, was not a one of editorial, for just as it did for Ed Koch in 1977, the Post’s front pages and its numerous subsequent editorials, usually moved up to the front pages, became a battering ram for Adams and against his opponents (with their guns trained on Maya Wiley) for the duration of this primary campaign. That tabloid double play, I wrote of in my Part II piece of this trilogy on the Mayoral Maze, helped Adams immensely. The Daily News front pages portrayed Adams favorably in stories with pictures anchoring Adams with older outer borough Black voters, while the New York Post built bridges for Adams to older white ethnic voters also in the outer boroughs.
I daresay these editorial endorsements in terms of their collective influence (boosting Garcia and Adams, while taking down Yang), far exceeded that of all the paid TV and digital advertising combined. Though in truth, the smart TV advertising, fertilized the seeds in the ground plowed by those editorial endorsements. Some years the editorial boards will not have this kind of profound influence, but 2021 was one of the years that it did. This year that influence extended to the Comptroller’s race as well as the Manhattan DA’s race: the Times carried the day in heralding Lander for Comptroller and Bragg for DA of Manhattan, though the Daily News and the Post endorsements of Tali Farhadian Weinstein helped to make that race close and pushed back on the early surmise that the progressive left would dominate that race to succeed Cy Vance.
So if a candidate or their campaign, asked me down the road whose endorsements mattered more AOC or the editorial boards in a Democratic primary? I would say cultivating Mara Gay at the Times and Josh Greenman over at the Daily News are worth prioritizing. It is a reflection of their modesty and sense of purpose that I now expect emails chastising me from both Mara and Josh reminding me it is the editorial boards as a whole not them as individuals that make the endorsements. But Mara Gay and Josh Greenman hold the pens that draft those endorsements. Nor would I ignore the Post’s ed board, although their editorials do not automatically resonate with key Democratic voting blocs in primaries. But when the opening is there for the Post to have influence on a Democratic primary campaign here in New York, the Post’s ed page is exquisitely shrewd in pouncing on the opportunity, as it did this year. So I would reiterate that advice to candidates in future races, do not question Mother Nature, when it comes to the value of editorial board endorsements.
The fourth and final factor worth exploring is the RCV system itself. The proponents of RCV have concluded that all is well and the consent of the governed with RCV is now a certainty. For three reasons, I am less sanguine than they are and think the jury is still out on RCV. One, we came within 7,200 votes of having a bitter full scale racial controversy over the impact of RCV. If Adams had lost, meaning that Garcia had gotten 7,200 more RCV votes, from absentee ballots, than Adams did in that final round, I think the proponents of RCV would have had a very tough time explaining an equation emanating from that exit poll on RCV, which we cited earlier in this piece, that Susan Lerner’s Common Cause commissioned Edison to take of this year’s primary electorate.
That exit poll revealed that 25 percent of Black primary voters had only voted for one candidate, whereas only 10 percent of White voters voted for a single mayoral candidate. I do not think that was because Black voters did not or could not understand RCV, I presume this dramatically lower rate of RCV voting among Black voters was because Black voters, for very understandable historical reasons, did not yet trust such a profound change in the electoral system. But regardless of the reason, had Adams lost that roughly 100,000 vote lead among first place votes, here is how the question would be posed to the proponents of RCV: are you comfortable with a system where the individual ballots of a quarter of Black voters counted for less in the outcome that the individual votes of 90 percent of White voters?
Let that question soak in for a minute or two. My personal answer to that question would be no, I am not comfortable with that level racial disparity if it persists under RCV. If, however, that racial gap in using the RCV system dramatically shrank in future elections, this problem could go away over time. But if that racial gap also extended to the Hispanic community in future elections, it could become a chronic problem threatening the ability of the minority majority in the city’s electorate to have de facto equal voting rights. But it really would not matter what I thought, or Susan Lerner thinks, who was the James Madison behind this move to an RCV system in NYC. Instead , what would matter is how minority voters in general and Black voters in particular felt about RCV going forward. And derivatively how the political leaders within the minority community felt about RCV, beginning with a Mayor Adams. In short, I do not think my friend Maya Wiley’s enthusiasm for RCV expressed in her post-election op-ed in the Washington Post for RCV, would necessarily carry the day. Nor would the near certain fact that this disparate impact on race, under this first RCV election in NYC, was not the intent of principled folks like Susan Lerner. That equation of the individual ballots of a quarter of Black voters counting for less than those cast by 90 percent of White voters is exactly what the Democratic party should be ready to fight to the end in states like Texas, Georgia and Arizona.
Disparate impact based on race in terms of voting systems, should not be tolerated anywhere in America, least of all New York. This concern about RCV, also goes to a point that Errol Louis has been making on his Inside City Hall programs on NY1, even if you wanted to enact RCV, it should have been phased in over time beginning with the City Council races, not having its first run be in the most consequential mayoral election in recent memory, given the post-Pandemic challenges facing NYC. When Errol Louis posed this and other RCV questions to Susan Lerner in an interview right after the primary, she fell back on the argument that RCV has been used for nearly a century in Australia. I find Lerner’s argument facile, but unpersuasive. To cite the experience of RCV in 90 percent White jurisdictions like Australia overseas, or overwhelmingly White electorates like Maine, Minnesota and Alaska, does not answer the question of whether RCV works in an incredibly diverse electorate, especially one with minority majority’s like New York’s. My argument against RCV, when I was in lonely opposition back in 2019, was not never RCV, instead it was why not wait until we see how it works in cities with large minority communities.
Nor may Black leaders be mollified by the example of RCV’s use in San Francisco. Not only has San Francisco been less defined by the racial divides of cities like NY, Chicago and Detroit, as the Black share of that electorate is less than 15 percent not the near 30 percent share cast by Black voters in cities like New York, but San Francisco’s political divides have been more ideological than racial and driven by the politics of LGBTQ empowerment rather than racial empowerment. But even in San Francisco, the current Mayor, an African American woman, London Breed saw her lead shrink from 12 percent among first place votes to just half a percent under RCV. Is that a mere coincidence?
I had several reporters call me just before and after June 22nd, who told me RCV experts from other states and cities said that if a candidate for Mayor or Comptroller had a lead of 6-7 percent or more it would likely hold up. I cited the case of Breed in San Francisco and predicted that because there is no RCV track record in minority majority electorates, that I would not consider a lead of less than 10-12 percent sturdy under RCV. Given the sharp shrinkage in the final margins in the mayoral and comptroller’s races this year in New York, I stand by that projection. We simply do not yet know of the practical impact of RCV here in NYC, given its potential for disparate impact on race and ethnicity. Let me be clear, I hope this de facto rather than de jure racial factor underlying RCV wastes away to negligible levels in future elections here in NYC. But what if it does not? Then we will have created a needless racial problem politically in a majority minority electorate.
There are two more nuanced questions surrounding RCV that Errol Louis posed, one explicitly and one implicitly, to Susan Lerner in that post-primary NY1 interview, that I do not think have been adequately answered. Under RCV, in conjunction with our highly regarded campaign finance system, there is little incentive for candidates with no chance to win to drop out of a primary race, for they have every incentive to spend public funding dollars on their campaigns, while leveraging second place endorsements. That has two derivative impacts, it undercuts the cost saving argument Carol Kellermann made back in 2019 on behalf of RCV, that we would save money by not having run-off elections, precisely because as Errol Louis pointed out, what we save on runoffs in terms of money, we may be adding back in 13 candidate mayoral primaries via public campaign financing dollars. But Louis asked a deeper question, namely with so many candidates in mayoral races now (8 deemed serious this under the Campaign Finance Board debate inclusion requirements) included in TV debates, are the debates becoming shallow events with time for only 45 second answers? Errol Louis spoke from experience having moderated this year’s first CFB debate. In a run-off election with two candidates, voters get a chance to focus on more extensive debate questioning of the final candidates’ policy prescriptions and views.
But there is a more nuanced concern that the tight final RCV count raised in the mayoral contest. If Garcia had won after finishing third among first choice votes, because she swept second and third choice voting, would she have had a mandate to govern? This question is not a reflection on Kathryn Garcia, but it is a serious question for the RCV system. If in a diverse electorate the candidate who ultimately wins, may win only because of RCV strength, how will that impact a future Mayor’s bully pulpit strength? A better way to put that is do we yet know what voters are telling us by dint of their first choice vote as opposed to their RCV selections? Derivatively, what would it mean if a candidate is elected by RCV as opposed to first choice strength? I don’t think we can answer any of these questions theoretically, I sense the answers will only come when we see how a Mayor so elected is able to govern. But here again this uncertainty over what it would mean to have a third place candidate in the first choice balloting, ultimately elected Mayor under RCV, may have been an argument for not rushing to implement an RCV system, when it has almost no track record for governing such a diverse polity like New York.
Let me be clear, I truly hope that my concerns about RCV are misplaced and that as this system settles into usage, New Yorkers across the board will grow comfortable with it. But my concern remains that while the proponents, with the best of intentions, tried to emulate the success of James Madison at the founding of this nation’s Constitutional Republic, instead what they gave New York unwittingly was an impractical electoral system resembling the work of Rube Goldberg. In brief, I am not yet convinced that RCV will not go the way of proportional representation in the last Century, a local electoral system that New York City enacted and then discarded as a flawed contraption. Only time will tell.
In the end, this 2021 election for Mayor was a maze that was fascinating throughout. Let’s hope that the governance of City Hall that is to follow this election, will be up to the task of helping Gotham overcome the sustained challenges brought to the fore by the economic inequality laid bare by the Great Recession, as well as the threats to a city built upon density brought to the fore by the pandemic we know as COVID 19.
Bruce N. Gyory is a Democratic strategist and an adjunct professor of political science at the University at Albany, SUNY.