Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today’s show is Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a longtime contributing editor of City Journal, and a consummate expert on all things New York City.
Today, we’re going to turn to Nicole to help us make sense of the New York City primary elections that were held last week, but seem nowhere close to a final result. Nicole, thanks for, for joining us today.
Nicole Gelinas: Good morning, Brian. Nice to be on with you. And yes, I’m not sure that we’re going to make sense of them. I guess maybe we’ll make sense of why they don’t make sense.
Brian Anderson: Right. That’s the best we can do I think at this point. So last Tuesday was primary day in New York, for those listening who aren’t in New York. And all eyes were on the mayoral race, but thanks to a combination of absentee voting and the city’s new ranked-choice-voting system, we don’t know who the Democratic nominee and presumptive next mayor will be. We waited a week for the release of the preliminary ranked-choice results and now we still don’t know.
So the initial results showed Eric Adams folding double digit leads over the two closest contenders, Maya Wiley and Kathryn Garcia. Yesterday afternoon, though, when the city dropped the first batch of ranked-choice results, the race seemingly tightened quite a bit. And now Adams has a much narrower lead over Garcia, who is in second place. But there were serious discrepancies with the tally. Hours later the Board of Elections just withdrew them, citing apparently a software error that counted test ballots as real ones, if I’m understanding it correctly.
So ranked-choice voting has its advocates, we’ve been writing a bit about it in City Journal. But it’s really tough to see how this rollout of this new system could have gone worse. Could you just explain for people who might not be following this that closely what the mechanics of the process have been and how was this supposed to go, and what has gone wrong?
Nicole Gelinas: Sure. The point of ranked-choice voting has two goals. One, to save the city a little bit of money in not having to have a runoff election after a primary. So the old way of doing it would be, you’ve got four or five candidates in a primary. If none of them reach 40 percent of the electorate, then you have a runoff between the two top vote-getters, usually two weeks after the first primary, and that costs a few million more dollars. So we don’t really think of New York City as a government that’s searching for ways to save money, but for some bizarre reason, they saw this as an opportunity to save money.
And the other purpose of it is supposed to be to reduce acrimony among the candidates. That you won’t want to really attack your rivals because voters might pick both you and your rivals on their ballot. And so if you’re attacking your rivals, they may just leave you off the ballot as the negative person.
So how does it work? Instead of picking one candidate on the ballot, the voters go into the booth or do it at home if they’re voting absentee, and rank five candidates. So for example, if you liked someone like Ray McGuire for his education policy, wanted to rank him first, then you don’t suffer if he loses the election. You don’t feel like you threw away your vote on someone who most likely was not going to get to the top of the ballot. If he loses, as looks highly likely, I guess definite now, then your vote would go to the person that you picked second.
So say you chose Ray McGuire first and Maya Wiley second in the ideological differences there, once Ray McGuire had been kicked off the ballot and not getting enough votes, then your first choice is effectively Maya Wiley. If she were to lose and then your third person was Eric Adams, your vote then goes to Adams. And then so on down your list of five.
And the good news is that voters don’t seem to have had a problem with it last week. There wasn’t really any confusion at the ballot boxes. People either had their list of five people or they didn’t pick five. You don’t have to pick five. If you still just prefer one candidate or two, you could leave the rest of the ballot blank. It’s perfectly valid just to have your one favorite candidate, just like in an old-fashioned election.
But there were no lines at the ballots, don’t appear to have been a lot of spoiled ballots where people filled them out wrong. So the problem may not be with the system or the voters, but just the age-old story of New York City Board of Election incompetence.
Brian Anderson: Yeah. Well, what about these test ballots? I don’t quite understand what happened there. How would they be counted as real ballots and how would those votes get distributed?
Nicole Gelinas: Right. The Board of Elections said quite late last night, after the second-round results had been up on the website for several hours and had been reported across the news organizations, essentially this was a mistake and we should not consider these second-round results at all. And why is that? Because they had done a test run of dummy ballots to make sure that the software works and the ranked-choice voting system worked, and they never took out those 135,000 dummy ballots. So you’re looking at 20 percent of the ballots that were made up ballots.
And this is data analysis 101. If you’re going to do a test of equipment, which of course you should do, you should be using fake names. You shouldn’t be using the real candidates’ names, exactly to avoid a mistake like this. I mean, you should be putting in Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck names to do your simulation.
So I guess it’s good that they caught the mistake, but it doesn’t give people a lot of confidence in the results. If we go into a situation where this is a very close election, this gives all the candidates a pretty valid reason to ask for a hand count. So we could easily go into the rest of the summer and not have a final result.
Brian Anderson: Amazing. Toward the end of the campaign, Andrew Yang and Garcia forged an alliance, and Yang urged his voters to rank the former Sanitation Commissioner second. So if Garcia really does close the gap, but we’re not sure about that right now, might we see similar maneuvers in future elections? Or is the city going to just junk ranked-choice voting after this, would you say?
Nicole Gelinas: I think it depends on partly what the outcome is. Machine politicians like Eric Adams, they haven’t always been fans of ranked-choice voting. They think the runoff system benefits them. And that may turn out to be true. It’s striking that Adams is really the only one who didn’t try to be nicer to his opponents in thinking that, “I’ve got to get a slate of five people, so I can’t go after Maya Wiley too hard because I need her voters to rank me somewhere on the ballot.” He ran a very old-fashioned campaign, attacking Maya Wiley on the merits of her very poorly-thought-out public-safety campaign. He went after Andrew Yang pretty hard, as Andrew Yang reciprocated and raised the questions about where Eric Adams actually lives and other matters.
So Adams ran a more runoff based campaign, and it worked in the first round. If we were doing an old-fashioned election, the first round results that we got last week are still valid. So Adams has 32 percent, as you said, he’s running well above 10 percentage points ahead of Maya Wiley and Kathryn Garcia, who were vying for second place. So if we were having a runoff, it would be right now between Adams and Wiley. Almost certainly Adams would win that runoff race. And it is not certain that he’ll win the ranked-choice voting.
And so what happens, as you said: Yang and Garcia teamed up, they campaigned together for the last two and a half days of the election. And if it does turn out that Kathryn Garcia pulls ahead in the ranked-choice voting, hopefully we’ll know more later today, then a lot of that is due to a Yang’s voters ranking Garcia second. So there is, Yang did get 100,000 votes, with some absentees still outstanding. So with him out of the running that’s tens of thousands of votes—assuming that most of his voters did what he said and picked the Kathryn Garcia second—that then go to Garcia. That’s enough to put you over the top.
So there is a king-making or queen-making potential here, in that Yang had a deliverable voting bloc. He had very loyal supporters and if they go to Kathryn Garcia, she does owe him something. And so does that mean a position in her administration? So there’s a potential for this to work in an interesting way, once people get the hang of it.
Brian Anderson: You’ve written in a forthcoming essay on the dynamics of the election and on the history of New York City mayoral races, that these elections tend to happen in the shadow of big crises that the city periodically goes through. And the latest one is the upsurge in crime, which has been a key factor, as we’ve noted, in this race. We’ve seen Adams, who previously had this long career criticizing the NYPD, even though he’s a former officer. And Garcia, a kind of technocrat, both sounding law-and-order notes.
Is the story of this election ultimately in your view, unless Wiley manages some kind of surprising victory. Is it really the question of the Democratic center beating back the far Left here?
Nicole Gelinas: Yeah. I think we can safely say that the moderate Democrats dominated this mayoral election. If you add up the votes of Maya Wiley, 22 percent, and the rest of the progressive candidates—Scott Stringer, Dianne Morales, Shaun Donovan among them—they did not get 10 percent of the vote. So between Wiley and the lower-level progressives, that’s only one-third of the Democratic vote that chose a progressive candidate. So two-thirds of the Democratic electorate chose a moderate, and of course made these votes based on personality, based on perceptions of personal integrity.
But whether you picked Adams, Garcia, Andrew Yang, and to a much smaller extent, Ray McGuire, people chose moderate candidates that were calling for some level of more assertive policing in the face of a doubling in shootings and a 50 percent rise in the murder rate over the past two years.
Now, we don’t know how any of these people would actually govern. I mean, there are drawbacks with all of their platforms. Garcia, for example, really relying on gun buybacks as the big part of her anti-crime campaign. Adams, we’re not sure which Adams is going to govern, the pro-police or the anti-police Adams. But in this slate of imperfect candidates, voters clearly said, “We don’t want to defund the police. We need more policing in our neighborhoods.”
Brian Anderson: Now, the mayoral race isn’t the only show in town, of course. As you’ve written in your New York Post column, the down-ballot races are going to have a big impact on the way the city is governed. In the city council race you note that only two, I think, of six democratic-socialist-endorsed city council candidates seem to have won, but the council is in pretty rough shape politically I would say.
At the same time, in the race for Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg holds the lead. We ran a piece yesterday by Tom Hogan, looking at his background and platform pretty critically. Why are these races important in your view? And do we have a sense of how the new council might get along with a Mayor Adams, say, or a Mayor Garcia?
Nicole Gelinas: Right. With the district attorney it’s still too close to call. Bragg is three points ahead of Tali Farhadian Weinstein, I hope I said her middle name correctly, and she ran a much more moderate race. So even there, there’s a little bit of a split in what the voters want. And there were candidates far to the left of Bragg too that didn’t do very well. So not a great sign, but still too early to call.
But yes, I think you’re right that the mayor will face a real challenge in dealing with the city council next year. It’s not so much that it has moved further to the left. The city council has always been, or at least for 20 years, been to the left of the mayors, but much more vocal voices that can gain attention beyond their own districts. Tiffany Caban for Queens district attorney last year or two years ago on a platform of basically decriminalizing anything short of a violent felony. Voters did not choose her as DA, they chose a much more moderate DA, Melinda Katz, but in the city council race it looks like she’s winning. She’s one of those two of six Democratic socialist candidates who’s winning.
And I think some of that is partly the name recognition that she built up during the DA’s race. We are asking a lot of voters in the cognitive load and asking them to pick five mayoral candidates, five controllers candidates. When they get down to city council, they may be picking the name that they know. Which we saw in a couple of people who used to have the city council seats and had left for eight years because of term limits, are now back in those seats most likely, Gale Brewer and Charles Barron.
So just a lot of name recognition here at work, but yes, we will have a left-wing Council that probably will try to micromanage the mayor through the police budget. Are we going to see a resurgence of the defund movement in next year’s budget? And not wanting to add back the policing class that was cut, for example. And in just a lot of push for new mandates on small business and so forth as we try to recover. So that will be something for the mayor to deal with.
Brian Anderson: We’re not going to have an officially announced winner in the mayoral race and in some of these other races until the city says so, when that happens it’s going to be time to start looking to the future. To consider what the new mayor needs to do to steer the city through a very difficult period, marked by both the Covid-19 pandemic, of course, and this resurgence of crime. It is a very broad question, but it’s an important one. What should, above all, the next mayor concentrate on to be successful and to help the city?
Nicole Gelinas: Well, I mean, the strange thing about the election is that once we have a winner—even, say, worst-case scenario we don’t know until August 1—that the Democratic primary winner has five months before he or she takes office. Of course, we still have a general election in November. And it’s most likely that the Democrat will win, but not impossible that Curtis Sliwa, the Republican nominee, also makes his case. So it’s not over until November.
But five months in having the Democratic primary down, this is a time to really start to put together your cabinet. Really go out there and listen to all different groups, giving all different types of expertise, and what should the projects be on the first day in office. First of all, open up de Blasio’s final budget. Look for any savings there, because on January 1, when the mayor takes office, the final de Blasio budget will still have six months to run out.
But just opening that up, trying to cut out the most frivolous of the de Blasio spending to save a little bit of money for the next year. Going to the council, looking to add back that policing class, because it takes a few months to go through the police academy. We will need those police officers by next summer. And I would say aggressively looking to manage the streets better. Putting out more bus lanes to try to get people back on the buses, if they’re uncomfortable riding subway still.
But a very big focus on both cutting the budget and improving public safety, whether it’s a violent crime that we’re seeing, or the spate of traffic deaths that we’re seeing. If people don’t feel safe walking around on the streets, then we’re not going to have a very good recovery. We still have half a million people unemployed, so the mayor also has to be a sort of Ed Koch–style cheerleader for the City and trying to raise people’s spirits.
Brian Anderson: Thanks very much, Nicole.
Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images