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Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang

Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Yang’s Poll Shows Him a Ranked-Choice Favorite. But Here’s Why It’s All Up for Grabs

Twice in a decade in San Francisco, a candidate who initially ranked third emerged as the victor. Here’s what the new ballot system could mean in NYC’s mayoral contest with the race in flux.

SHARE Yang’s Poll Shows Him a Ranked-Choice Favorite. But Here’s Why It’s All Up for Grabs
SHARE Yang’s Poll Shows Him a Ranked-Choice Favorite. But Here’s Why It’s All Up for Grabs

Andrew Yang’s campaign is touting his frontrunner status in the race for mayor based on a new internal poll — but might be unpleasantly surprised at the results of the ultimate ranked-choice vote.

The poll, conducted by Slingshot Strategies, found that 42% of likely Democratic voters planned to rank Yang in one of their three top ballot slots. Some 37% said they’d put Scott Stringer in the top three, while 34% would place Eric Adams in that echelon.

Slingshot surveyed 842 Democratic voters over a week in April, shortly before an allegation of sexual misconduct against Stringer cost the city comptroller some major endorsements and raised questions about his viability in the primary.

For the first time in a citywide election, New Yorkers will use ranked choice voting and place their top five picks, in order, on their June 22 primary ballots. 

The new system could shake up predicted results.

In more than 96% of ranked choice elections in the U.S. since 2004, the winner was the first round leader, according to data compiled by FairVote. But history shows cases where the No. 2 and even No. 3 choices won. 

Mayoral candidate Eric Adams

Alyssa Katz/THE CITY

Meanwhile, an unranked poll out Wednesday from comptroller candidate Corey Johnson’s campaign shows Adams in the top slot, with Yang and Stringer close behind.

“The three top choices are bunched together, which, frankly, could be the opening act to ranked choice voting drama,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant. “If Stringer is able to get his wind back, he’s in position to do what his strategy was originally: to be in second place and to win under an instant runoff.”

Unknowns Galore

With 13 Democratic mayoral candidates on the primary ballot running the spectrum from moderate to lefty, and ad buys just beginning in earnest, the race is widely considered up for grabs. Maya Wiley and Kathryn Garcia are accumulating endorsements, Dianne Morales is upping her ground game and Ray McGuire and Shaun Donovan may soon receive more name recognition as the outside money supporting them goes to work.

If no candidate notches more than 50% of first-place votes, then runoffs take place until a single candidate comes out on top. For each round, candidates with the fewest first-ranked votes are eliminated and their votes then go to their supporters’ second-place choices.

Unlike many other cities, New York also continues the count until all but two candidates are eliminated, potentially increasing chances another candidate could overtake the most popular No. 1 pick.

Mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In rare cases, the candidate who gets the most first-pace rankings isn’t guaranteed to win. Twice in San Francisco, which has used ranked choice voting since 2004, winners of local elections ranked third in the first round, when votes were initially tallied. In 13 other races across the U.S., the winners started out in second place. 

Political consultants with ranked-choice experience say that making friends among rivals can make all the difference.

“The candidates who tend to win to both come in first or very, very strong second, but also, frankly, have made alliances or have ideological fellow travelers ... so that they can rank up and accrue second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-place votes,” said Eric Jaye, the president of San Francisco-based Storefront Political Media. 

To win, a candidate needs a good number of first-choice votes and a swath of second- and third-choice votes. If a candidate comes in first on many ballots, but doesn’t have broad support in further elimination rounds, they likely won’t come out on top.

Fog City, Clear Winner

In 2010, Democrat Malia Cohen won a seat on the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco’s version of City Council, after having started out in third place in the first round out of 21 candidates. In the first round, less than 1% separated the top five candidates, and the candidate with the most votes barely broke 12%.

But Cohen collected enough votes from candidates who were knocked out, consolidating their support for her — as shown in their second- and third-place rankings — to emerge as the victor with more than half of the vote after 20 rounds, according to the San Francisco Department of Elections.

Cohen, who received both moderate and progressive endorsements, went on to serve on the Board of Supervisors until 2019, and now serves as the first African-American woman on the city’s elected tax commission. Cohen, who is running for state controller, did not respond to a request for comment.

San Francisco politician Malia Cohen

Sheila Fitzgerald/Shutterstock

A decade later, in 2020, urban planner Myrna Melgar ended up becoming the first woman to represent her district on the Board of Supervisors in a similar situation. She was in third place out of seven candidates during the first round, but topped out after six elimination rounds

The candidate who ranked first in every round until the sixth and final round, Joel Engardio, was “ideologically more divisive,” Jaye said. “His message was sharper than [Melgar’s]. The clearer you are about any message, the tendency then is for you to attract more strong supporters, but also for you to generate more strong opponents.”

In contrast, “Myrna had support across the board, and while there was strong support on either side of her for candidates, they couldn’t build a big enough coalition to win it outright,” said Jill Nelson Golub, a principal at San Francisco-based BMWL and Partners, another consulting firm. “Not being extremely ideological in one way or the other benefited her greatly.”

Melgar said collaborations she forged with other candidates was part of her strategy.

“In my race, like in Malia’s race, it was assumed that it was going to be one of the guys who won, but they spent all their time and money throwing s—t at each other, and ranking me as their second choice because they both assumed that my votes would go to them,” Melgar said. “In fact, the other way around happened.”

A Progressive Battle

In an email, Engardio pushed back on the appraisals and said the situation was more complicated: He said he was one of five moderate candidates, three of whom had “more divisive and controversial messaging” than he did, while Melgar was one of the two progressives.

‘Ranked choice voting can produce random accidents.’

Melgar pointed out that when a more moderate female candidate was eliminated, she accumulated most of the votes from that candidate. 

“People did not expect gender to trump ideology and it did because people wanted a woman,” Melgar said. “The elimination is just as important as the ranking from the top.”

Engardio said Melgar lucked out: “Ranked choice voting can produce random accidents.”

Ranked choice voting is designed to produce a consensus candidate, according to Deb Otis, senior research analyst at FairVote, adding that in Melgar’s race, the system worked.

“We determined this come-from-behind winner was a true consensus winner,” Otis said. “She would’ve won a head-to-head race against any other candidate on the ballot.”

Will We Know?

Polling is just one indicator of which candidate might come out on top in an election decided by ranked choice voting. So even with Yang topping most public polls until recently, he’s not dominating the race. 

“While we’re excited to continue growing our coalition even further, the fact is that right now, Andrew is the only candidate uniting voters from every borough, background and income level, and RCV benefits campaigns like ours — that have a positive, unifying message of hope for the city’s future — the most,” said Jake Sporn, a Yang campaign spokesperson.

Election Guide

THE CITY Helps You Navigate the 2021 Elections

Our guide is here to make your decisions easier, with details on candidates, the jobs they’re running for, how to use the new ranked-choice voting system and more.

Polls are helpful in ranked choice voting races to help campaigns “figure out strategy and resource allocation and voter targets,” said John Whitehurst, a principal at BMWL and Partners. 

But, he added: “In close races, [they’re] not so good as predictors of who wins weeks out. Your race is close and far from over.”

New York City candidates and strategists will have to learn to run their campaigns in a way that’s most effective given the new voting system, which rewards name recognition as well as teaming up to attract similar voters. 

“It’s going to take a while…  to see rank choice voting completely flip the field, given the lack of information, even among the very informed electorate,” said Nelson Golub. “In 10 years, it’ll play a different role in both the way that people run campaigns and in the result.”

Voters looking to game the system and propel a candidate from third rank to winner during the elimination rounds may be disappointed — or relieved — to hear their best approach is straightforward.

“The best strategy is to throw strategy out the window and vote your honest preferences,” Otis said. “The point of ranked choice voting is you get exactly one vote. If it can’t help your first choice, only then does it go on to help your second choice.”