New Yorkers will wait longer to conduct instant runoff

Former City Council Member James Gennaro
Former City Council Member James Gennaro
William Alatriste/New York City Council
Former City Council Member James Gennaro is poised to regain his seat.

New Yorkers will wait longer to conduct instant runoff

James Gennaro won a majority of first-place votes in New York City Council District 24. Here’s what happens next.
February 3, 2021

New York City’s first ranked-choice election on Tuesday was kind of a dud, with it seeming that former City Council Member James Gennaro would reclaim his old seat in Council District 24 without triggering an instant runoff. Gennaro had a commanding lead on election night with just under 60% of the vote among the eight candidates. Even though about 2,000 absentee ballots still must be counted, given Gennaro’s lead, it’s highly unlikely that instant-runoff tabulation will actually be used this time around, despite the hype and attention the special election received. So, it seems like this will be like any old plurality election of the past.

That said, it’s not impossible that the absentee ballots could shake things up and kick off multiple rounds of vote counting. Plus, with the next special election coming up on Feb. 23, it won’t be long before New Yorkers start thinking about ranked-choice tabulation again. Here’s what you need to know about what happened in the first test of the new voting system, and what might still come to pass. 

So what do we know from election night?

Election night results reflect only voters’ first choices. The city Board of Elections counted them the same way that an old-fashioned plurality system would be determined. That means 59.79% of voters in the special election ranked Gennar as their number one choice on their ballot. Moumita Ahmed, who came in a distant second on election night, was the first choice of 15.61% of those who cast ballots in early voting or on Election Day. These results do not include any information about second-, third-, fourth- or fifth-ranked choices and constitute what would be considered the first round of ballot counting.

Will there be more rounds of counting?

If Gennaro holds onto a majority once all absentee, affidavit, overseas and military ballots are counted, then the answer is no. Under the ranked-choice system adopted by the city, if someone wins an outright majority of first-choice votes in the first round of counting, no ensuing rounds will take place. This means no elimination of last place candidates and redistribution of those votes to other ranked candidates on that ballot. However, the first round of voting technically is not complete because of the aforementioned absentee, affidavit, overseas and military ballots. The city BOE must first count the first-choice votes on all those ballots before we know for certain whether any candidate exceeded that 50% threshold.

But Gennaro already has 60%, is that likely to change?

It seems incredibly unlikely, but as last year’s elections proved, election night results are hardly final. Numerous candidates in both primary and general elections made up significant election night deficits to emerge victorious thanks to the new wider use of absentee ballots during the pandemic. If this were a plurality race, Gennaro would almost certainly have declared victory already, given that his lead of 2,500 votes well exceeds the approximately 2,000 absentee ballots mailed out for this election. But thanks to ranked-choice voting, all that needs to happen is that other candidates get enough of the absentees to cause his lead to dip below 50%. While this prospect is still highly improbable, it’s not totally impossible. And evidence from last year indicates that mail-in ballots tend to skew left, which could benefit progressives like Ahmed over a relatively conservative Democrat like Gennaro. If Gennaro winds up just one vote below 50%, ranked-choice tabulation would begin.

We need to wait for all the mail-in ballots before we know for sure?

Unfortunately, yes. There remains at least a two week wait for results. The city BOE will continue to accept absentee ballots postmarked on or before Election Day through Feb. 9, and military ballots through Feb. 15. So the earliest we’ll know for sure is Feb. 16. The counting of absentee ballots will almost certainly begin for then, however, which will likely be the deciding factor in whether this race will move on to round two.

Why do we have to wait for all the mail-in and absentee ballots to get counted?

The reason is because it’s impossible to begin the candidate elimination and vote redistribution process until the top-ranked choices of every person who cast a ballot in the election is known. It’s impossible to factor in other ballots once ranked-choice tabulation begins, so that means New Yorkers need to prepare to buckle in. Luckily, last year’s elections should have prepared many of us for long-drawn out elections with results determined a week or more after Election Day. 

So if Gennaro goes below 50% once the absentee ballots are accounted for, then what?

Then it’s go time! The city BOE begins tabulating ensuing rounds of vote counting until only two are left. In the second round, the candidate with the lowest number of first-choice votes gets eliminated, and the vote is redistributed to whoever is ranked second. If a ballot only has a first-choice vote, it’s considered an “exhausted ballot” and plays no role in further tabulation. The bottom candidate is eliminated in each ensuing round, with their votes redistributed to the highest-ranked candidate on the ballot still in the running. Once there are only two candidates left, the candidate with the most votes wins. 

I thought I read that vote counting continues until someone gets over 50% and a winner is declared?

This is the most common way of tabulating ranked-choice election results, where tabulation stops the moment someone exceeds the 50% threshold regardless of how many candidates remain. New York City adopted a lesser-used method, which mandates that vote counting continue until only two candidates remain. This is a technical difference that does not impact who wins the election or the average voter. Once someone gets over 50% of the vote, that person is the winner of the election – extra rounds of counting won’t change that. The slightly different rule serves two main purposes. The first is to ensure that the city can still declare a winner in the rare instance where two candidates remain, but neither has gotten more than 50% of the vote. It’s incredibly uncommon, but not unheard of. The second reason is because continuing vote redistribution even after a winner emerges ensures that the most number of votes are included in the final tally, while offering a more complete picture of how people voted.

What does that mean? Isn’t the winner the winner?

Think of it this way: after no candidate has won an outright majority, the next round of voting counting begins. Candidate A could emerge with 51% of the vote after round two. She wins no matter what, but the question becomes by how much. By continuing the count, she could wind up with 63% of the vote, a clearer mandate that reflects the votes of many more people through alternate rankings. If the count stops, the full impact of many ballots would never be realized.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is deputy state politics reporter at City & State.
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