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How does NYC’s ranked-choice voting system work?

How does NYC's ranked-choice voting system work?

Pick five — and then prepare to wait!

New Yorkers will be able to select as many as five candidates in the mayoral race and other contests up and down the ballot during the Big Apple’s June primary elections, thanks to the new ranked choice voting system.

It’s the first time RCV has been used in a citywide election — and it means big changes to the ballots mailed out and used at the polls across the five boroughs.

“I am in favor of ranked-choice voting. I think it gives people more options,” said Aaron Gretzinger, who was attending an event for one Democratic mayoral hopeful in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood. “Especially with the mayoral race, where there are, like, 30 different candidates, I’m glad I can just narrow it down to 5.”

The new system is a huge change in city politics because it means that voters are effectively casting ballots for the first round and any potential runoff at the same time.

Despite combining what was once two elections into one, officials are warning that it could take weeks to learn the final outcome because of state mandates that require the Board of Elections hold off on final tallies until absentee ballots are returned.

Mayor Bill de Blasio demonstrated how the new system works during his Thursday briefing using pizza toppings — as he continues to demur on questions about a possible endorsement in the Democratic primary.

The fork-loving, pizza-faux-pas-prone politician held up a giant prop ballot where he selected his five favorite toppings, leading with… green peppers in the first choice slot.

“A lot of people don’t appreciate green peppers enough,” de Blasio deadpanned. “I have southern Italian roots. Green peppers are a very big, important part of our life.”

The new balloting system not the only big change this cycle. This is also the first citywide primary election to take place in June since 1973.

What’s this new ballot?

The New York City ballot now looks a whole lot like the multiple-choice scantron sheets from high school tests of yore.

Like in elections past, each race will now include a list of candidates. Now, though, there is a grid of bubbles next to the candidates, allowing you to select one for each of your ballot slots — with five columns available, one for each choice.

An example of a ranked choice ballot provided by the New York City Board of Elections.
An example of a ranked choice ballot provided by the New York City Board of Elections.
NYC Board of Elections

You can only pick one candidate for each choice and you should select a different candidate for each one. If you select the same candidate for all five slots, it counts as only one vote.

You’ll have plenty of choices if you’re voting in the Democratic mayoral primary, where there are 13 people on the ballot — plus a fourteenth place for write-ins.

How does ranked choice voting work?

It begins with determining which candidate got the smallest number of votes in the first round — and knocking them out of the race.

However, their ballots aren’t relegated anymore. Instead, the Board of Elections tallies the second-choice votes of voters who had that candidate as their top pick — and allocates them across the remaining candidates.

The votes are counted again and the candidate who is in last place after the second round is then excluded — and the ballots cast for them as No. 1 choice that also listed a second choice are reallocated.

And voters who cast votes for the first loser as their first choice and then for the second loser as their second choice — their vote is then reallocated to their third choice, if they marked one.

Brooklyn Borough President and mayoral candidate Eric Adams in the Lower East Side of Manhattan on June 4, 2021.
Brooklyn Borough President and mayoral candidate Eric Adams in the Lower East Side of Manhattan on June 4, 2021.
Stephen Yang

This process repeats until there are just two candidates standing and whoever has collected the most votes — wins.

Have an example?

Say we have a Democratic mayoral primary composed of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Robert Moses, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ed Koch and John Lindsay.

Hamilton nets 73 votes in the Democratic mayoral primary, placing last — even behind that loser, Burr.

All of the Hamilton voters who marked a second choice would have their votes reallocated to the remaining candidates — including Burr.

Burr then places last in the second round of voting, missing his shot.

However, if his voters marked their second choices on the ballot, their votes are then reallocated to the remaining candidates.

If any Hamilton voters backed Burr (democracy has its quirks!), their votes are then reallocated to their third choice.

In the third round, Lindsay places last and so his ballots are redistributed according to the marked preference for the next choice; then Koch loses the fourth round, so his ballots are redistributed too.

The race has boiled down to just two candidates — Franklin Roosevelt and Robert Moses (who, per Robert Caro, hated each other).

And whoever gets the most votes win.

Mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia at a press conference in Queens on June 4, 2021.
Mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia at a press conference in Queens on June 4, 2021.
Gregory P. Mango

Why fill all five slots?

New Yorkers love winners — and, also, the Jets.

And for years, New York held runoff elections for contests for the top two candidates from any race if the initial winner got less than 40 percent of the vote, giving every New Yorker the chance to pick a winner.

The runoffs and the behind-the-scenes machinations were the stuff of lore — most famously, the brutal 1977 battle between Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo — and yet, they typically produced dismal turnout.

Good government groups have argued for years that one cost-effective solution would be a system that allows for instant runoffs, instead of getting voters to go back to the polls two weeks after the primary for the final bout.

But, it only fulfills its designed purpose if New Yorkers make their second, third, fourth and fifth choices on the ballot.

Opponents have argued the change is bound to confuse voters, particularly older voters who are used to voting for just one candidate at a time and may not be aware of the coming change.

Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang speaking at a campaign stop in Flushing, Queens on May 10, 2021.
Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang speaking at a campaign stop in Flushing, Queens on May 10, 2021.
Dennis A. Clark

Some City Council members filed a lawsuit in Manhattan attempting to block the implementation of rank-choice voting, arguing that City Hall and the Board of Elections have done an insufficient job educating the public — and the cost of the failure would fall disproportionately on minority voters.

However, the lawsuit was quickly tossed.

When will we know who won?

This may take a little while to figure out.

There are three ways for New Yorkers to cast ballots in the primary: they can cast a ballot during Early Voting, go to their poll site on Primary Day — or, they can vote using an absentee ballot.

Under New York state law, the Board of Elections can only tally the results from early voting and Primary Day on June 22.

Officials have pledged to release an unofficial count of the ‘first choice’ results on primary night — as is tradition — and to provide the first unofficial results from the new ranked-choice runoff the following week on June 29.

However, those counts will be incomplete because the absentee ballots will not be included until one week after the election at the earliest.

Why? BOE will not begin opening the mail ballot envelopes until June 28.

This gives the ballots a week to make their way through the Postal Service and it gives officials time to compare the poll books to the absentee ballot requests to ensure no one tried to vote twice.

Mayoral candidate Maya Wiley speaking outside of City Hall on June 5, 2021.
Mayoral candidate Maya Wiley speaking outside of City Hall on June 5, 2021.
Ron Adar / M10s / MEGA

BOE employees then inspect them for potential clerical issues that could lead to disqualification (like an incomplete return address, missing signature, etc).

And, if a problem is found, the voter is notified with a phone call, e-mail and a letter — has until July 9 to get it fixed.

As New Yorkers learned in 2020, that means the absentee ballot counts will trickle in slowly and could shift the outcome of the race.

To account for that, the BOE said it will rerun the rank-choice voting system on July 6 and then every week until all the mail ballots are counted.

Officials said they will then do one final and official run that will tally all the ballots at once for the complete result — but provided no expected date for when that would happen.

— Additional reporting by Will Engel

About the author

Evan Lewis

With a knack for storytelling, Evan started News Brig about a year ago. Covering substantial topics under the Sports,, he helps information seep in deeper with creative writing and content management skills.

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