In the first real example of the kind of shift in campaigning that New York City’s new ranked-choice voting system can produce, former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia and Andrew Yang hit the campaign trail together on the weekend before the Democratic mayoral primary in which they are competing.
The move drew immediate condemnation from Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, the front-runner according to recent polls, and some of his supporters went so far as to call the co-campaigning an attempt at voter suppression by increasing the chances that Adams might lose the election despite winning a plurality of first-place votes.
But while strategic alliances between candidates is new to New York City, it’s not new to areas with ranked-choice voting. For example, two leading candidates for mayor of San Francisco created a similar alliance in 2018, as did two gubernatorial candidates in Maine the same year, and some City Council candidates have already cross-endorsed in New York this year.
Passed as a ballot referendum in 2019 in New York City, proponents of ranked-choice voting say one of the advantages of the system is friendlier campaigning, as candidates attempt to get not just first choice votes, but second and third choices as well. That means appealing to – or at least not alienating – voters who will rank one of your opponents first.
Of course, any such change would not take place immediately, especially in a famously competitive town like New York. At a 2020 press conference promoting ranked-choice voting, Adams disagreed with other prospective mayoral hopefuls who spoke about the possibility of more positive campaigns, when he said, “Trust me! It’s going to be a dirty campaign.”
When Garcia and Yang announced on Friday evening they would get out the vote together, Adams – a one-time proponent of the new system who has since said he is concerned about rollout – was not pleased. “For them to come together like they are doing in the last three days, they’re saying we can’t trust a person of color to be the mayor of the city of New York, when this city is overwhelmingly people of color,” Adams said. Later that day, he clarified that he was referring to Black and Latino people, since Yang is Asian American. Adams is Black; Garcia is non-Hispanic white.
On Monday, Adams criticized his competitors for making the announcement on Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the day the last slaves in Texas learned they were free after the Civil War, and invoked the violations of Black Americans’ voting rights in Jim Crow-era South. “African Americans are very clear on voter suppression,” Adams said. “We know about the poll tax. We know about the fight we’ve had historically, how you had to go through hurdles to vote.”
Adams’ campaign gathered statements from supporters who reiterated his complaints. Rep. Gregory Meeks from Queens said the move “reeked of desperation,” while civil rights activist Ashley Sharpton said the pair were engaged in “a cynical attempt to disenfranchise Black voters”and trying to “steal the election.”
In a news conference on Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is believed by many observers to be tacitly supporting Adams, said the co-campaining seemed “a little more opportunistic.”
But even fellow candidates didn’t share Adams’ view. Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney who is also Black, released a statement condemning the rhetoric from Adams and his supporters. She said that while it’s not a decision she would have made, it was not racist. “Ranked Choice Voting – or alliances formed from it – is not voter suppression, it’s not a poll tax and to compare it to that denigrates the work of so many who have come before us,” Wiley said.
Garcia and Yang aren’t the first New York City candidates to campaign together since the advent of ranked-choice voting, nor are they the only candidates to factor the new system into how they campaign. Mayoral candidates Art Chang and Joycelyn Talor endorsed each other back in May, although neither are among the top-tier, or even second-tier, candidates. Several competing City Council candidates, such as Rebecca Lamorte and Billy Freeland in Manhattan, have chosen to cross-endorse in their races in order to utilize the new ranked-choice voting system. Organizations and individuals have released ranked endorsements, which candidates have included on campaign materials. And candidates on the trail have asked voters and endorsers to consider them for their second choice – including Adams himself.
Proponents of ranked-choice voting denounced the claim that Garcia and Yang’s co-campaigning is an attempt at voter suppression. “There is nothing insidious or cynical about two candidates transparently using a legitimate strategy in a democratically approved system of election,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, and Sean Dugar, education campaign director for Rank the Vote NYC said in a joint statement. “Ranked choice voting incentivizes consensus building and collaboration to the ultimate benefit of the voters.”
This is also hardly the first time that a pair of prominent candidates decided to campaign together in a ranked-choice election for a major citywide position. Although Garcia and Yang did not actually cross-endorse each other, former San Francisco mayoral candidates Jane Kim and Mark Leno did just that in 2018. The pair of progressives, along with now-Mayor London Breed, were front-runners in a wide-open race for mayor of San Francisco. But Breed was more moderate on local issues than the pair, leading Kim and Leno to back each other based on ideological grounds.
As with Garcia and Yang, the decision by Kim and Leno drew scrutiny as well. The San Francisco Chronicle, which had endorsed Breed, said the pair were “gaming” the city’s 15-year-old ranked-choice voting system and projecting “an element of desperation.”
Breed, who got the most first-choice votes, still won at the end of the ranked-choice tabulation process and continues to serve today.
In the vast majority of cases, the person who raked in the most first-choice votes winds up winning in the end, generally because they are popular enough to have gained enough support in lower rankings on the ballot. If the original second-place finisher comes out on top at the end of vote tabulating, ranked-choice supporters would see that as a feature, not a bug, in the system, because the winning candidate demonstrated broader appeal.
It’s also worth noting that under the previous system in New York City, the first-place finisher in first-place votes wouldn’t necessarily win either. If no candidate received more than 40% of the votes – which seems probable given the field of eight major candidates and polls that have yet to show any one candidate with more than 40% support as a first choice – the election have been followed by a run-off, in which the top two vote-getters would compete. Given that those runoffs tend to be very low-turnout affairs, ranked-choice proponents argue that the instant runoff conducted in the new system is more democratic.
Still, the criticism voiced by Adams and his backers is hardly a new one. Opponents of ranked-choice voting have said the system would disenfranchise Black voters by diluting their voting power, with the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus of the New York City Council coming out in opposition in 2019. A handful of the caucus’ members and several community organizations attempted to delay the implementation with an unsuccessful lawsuit in 2020 with the argument that there wasn’t enough time to learn about the new system, to the detriment of communities of color. NAACP New York State Conference President Hazel Dukes recently suggested in an oped that poor implementation would lead to voter Black and Latino voter suppression. Dukes noted a poll result showing that white voters were more likely to have heard about ranked-choice than Black or Latino voters, and that studies of ranked-choice systems show Black Democrats are more likely than their white counterparts only to rank one candidate. Black, Latino and Asian Caucus Chair Council Member I. Daneek Miller has introduced legislation to put ranked-choice voting back on the ballot in November. If Adams loses during the course of ranked-choice tabulation after winning the most first-place votes, it could give the movement against the new system more momentum.