Candidates across the city are crossing their fingers over a key piece of the June primary election over which they have no control: the order their names appear on the ballot.
The city Board of Elections on Thursday will hold a lottery to figure out who ends up where. The names will appear randomly — so neither candidates nor voters can bank on a simple alphabetical list going from, say, Eric Adams to Andrew Yang.
The stakes — and the unknowns — are raised this year with a bevy of crowded races, featuring hundreds of candidates, and the city’s first major test of ranked choice voting, a system in which voters rank up to five choices in order of preference for every contest.
“All the psychology and all the applicable science [are] pretty clear that ordering matters,” said Craig Burnett, a political scientist at Hofstra University.
Or, as Lupe Todd-Medina, a spokesperson for Democratic mayoral hopeful Ray McGuire, put it: “What candidate doesn’t want to appear first on the ballot?”
With early voting starting 10 days ahead of primary day, and absentee ballots available for all voters due to the pandemic, the candidate order will come into play well before June 22. Democratic primary winners typically go on to win general elections in November, although anything is possible this year.
Campaigns from the mayoral races to City Council contests are hoping for the premier spot at the top of the ballot — but say they’re not putting all stock in order.
“We’ll be wearing our lucky socks, but otherwise not sweating it,” said Annika Reno, a spokesperson for former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, a Democratic mayoral candidate. “We’re confident about Kathryn’s path to victory however the ballot order works out.”
The Board of Elections is also finalizing which candidates will appear on the ballot at all. Nearly 50 people have filed papers to run for mayor, for example, but it’s unclear how many have collected enough ballot signatures to make the cut. The BOE should certify primary ballots by late April, but doesn’t mail out absentee voting forms until 32 days before the election.
Does Order Matter?
Any edge could be useful, especially given this is New York’s first citywide rodeo with ranked-choice voting, coming during the pandemic, setting the stage for the city’s most crucial election in at least 20 years. Even voters who prioritize their top one or two picks but are set on ranking all five choices may just fill out their lower rankings based on name order.
“We have hundreds of candidates potentially on one piece of paper, and you have all these mayoral candidates,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant. “In that kind of setting, ballot position has tremendous value.”
On a complicated ballot with multiple races and several candidates, undecided or anxious voters — those trying to get quickly out of polling sites, if they’re voting in person — may opt for the topline candidates.
“To be the top choice gives you a certain advantage, not an overall advantage, among undecideds because they’re looking for someone to vote for,” said George Arzt, a Democratic political consultant. “But most people are patient. They know who they’re voting for going in and they look for that name.”
Burnett said ordering can make the difference of “a couple of percentage points” in down-ballot races, where there’s little information about the candidates, such as judicial elections, but will likely have less of an effect in more high-profile races.
“You always want to be on top, but if you’re a frontrunner like Andrew Yang, it is not a big deal if you’re not,” Burnett said. “I don’t think if you’re a low-tier candidate that being at the top of the ballot will somehow change your fortune in a dramatic way. You’ll probably get ranked out at some point but someone might look at you like, ‘Oh, they’re at the top of the ticket, maybe that’s a good person.’”
Outreach Seen as Key
The new way in which candidates must compete for voters in a ranked-choice election may likely lessen the ordering effect, said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a good-government nonprofit. And campaigns are all but certain to ramp up their voter education as primary day approaches.
“We expect that candidates have done a better job of reaching out to voters, and voters have an incentive to be informed about more candidates,” Lerner said. “That would completely override any weak tendency to just go with the first person on the ballot.”
Campaigns are betting that the more voters know about the candidates and the race itself, the less ballot position tends to matter. But in a city where voter turnout in the last citywide primary came in under 15%, hopefuls are leaving nothing to chance.
“Our focus is direct voter engagement to share Ray’s vision and educating voters on the new ranked choice voting process so they can make an informed decision at the ballot box,” said Todd-Medina.
Jeremy Edwards, a spokesperson for Democratic mayoral candidate Shaun Donovan, said the campaign, “wherever we land,” would continue to engage with voters to share Donovan’s vision.
Still, the high placement of a candidate’s name on the ballot could be a bonus.
“If the campaigns do a good job, you have to make it as easy as possible to be found, or you have to pray you can be found,” said Sheinkopf. “Here’s the case: You did a great job, you’re in the third or fourth position. Would it be better if you were one? The answer is yes.”