A closing thought on New York City’s primary election, now that it’s all over except the counting and the counting is going to take weeks.
First, anyone blowing hot air about What It All Means is selling themself — like Eric Adams, who’s way ahead based on in-person voters’ first picks but is proclaiming himself “the face of the new Democratic Party” even though he hasn’t won anything yet — or exposing themself or both.
And then remember that “It All” is a closed primary, so while winning it is usually tantamount to victory in November, it comes down to a relative handful of registered Democrats and to disputes within the Democratic Party where terms like “moderate” and “radical” mean something very different than they would in the context of the whole city, let alone the whole country.
As to the first big test of ranked-choice voting here, it went…okay.
On the negative side, every candidate who qualified for the generous public matching funds that make each campaign its own little patronage operation (and that’s not to mention PACs spending on their behalf) stayed in the race until the end, long after half of them knew they couldn’t win, since the ranked-choice system meant they weren’t spoiling the race for anyone else by doing that.
The result was a record, ridiculous eight contenders at the debates, which meant each would-be mayor had 30 or 45 seconds at a clip to lay out their vision for the future of New York City and specifics about how they’d get us there.
On the plus side, in-person turnout has already exceeded the pathetic 2013 total, even with absentee ballots that had to be postmarked by primary day still coming in and voters’ ranked choices yet to come into play.
That said, there will be at most 900,000 votes cast by Democrats in person or by mail and Adams, if his lead holds, would be poised to become mayor of our city of nearly 8.3 million on the strength of no more than 300,000 first-choice ballots.
Even that would be a big improvement on 2013, when de Blasio just scraped past the 40% threshold needed to avoid a runoff, back when we had runoffs, with about 260,000 votes out of 650,000 cast in a five-candidate race, as nearly 2.5 million registered Democrats didn’t bother turning out. That November, de Blasio won nearly 800,000 votes — or more than all the votes cast in the primary — out of just over a million total ones cast to trounce the highly competent Joe Lhota and claim a sweeping “mandate” in a city ready to return to its regular order after 20 years of non-Democratic mayors.
Speaking of ridiculous, all this talk about how “New York City has a new ranked-choice voting system” isn’t quite right. That system, also called instant runoff since it eliminates costly runoff races that usually had even lower turnout, is only for party primaries and special elections. In November, it’s back to an old-fashioned pick-your-poison contest. Other places with ranked-choice voting, like San Francisco, apply it to nonpartisan general elections, which makes much more sense.
It all speaks to a jerry-rigged system where state and city laws don’t fit together, one that’s full of weird traps like the need to challenge absentee ballots even before they’re in, which is how Andrew Yang ended up filing challenges aimed at minor candidates at about the same time he conceded the race as Clifford Michel detailed at The City. (Yang’s campaign says it’s withdrawing the suits, which may say more about New York’s crazy rules than anything else.)
Even with real improvements like early voting and, arguably, ranked-choice primaries, we still have election rules designed to disenfranchise many New Yorkers. What’s sometimes still called the party organization has held on to much of its power even as it’s largely abandoned organizing while counting on its most habitual and faithful voters to keep showing up at the polls as long as they’re still breathing.
But that only holds up so long as no one else picks up the role that the Democratic Party has mostly abandoned, and the Democratic Socialists and the Working Families Party have increased their sway in cycle after cycle by doing that work. That doesn’t mean that they run the town, but the progressive wave is still growing at the Council level and has made it up to the public advocate and comptroller’s office and many of the borough presidencies that have traditionally served as launching pads for mayoral runs, including Adams’s.
What’s sustained what remains of the Democratic Party’s power, in large part, is the closed primary system that makes its contests count for all of us, whether we’re in them or not, except for what tend to be once-in-a-generation, in-case-of-emergency-break-glass competitive general elections.