New York City just conducted the largest experiment in ranked-choice voting in U.S. election history, in which nearly a million New Yorkers ranked candidates for city council, borough president, mayor, public advocate and comptroller. In the vast majority of the primary races, the person who had the most first-place votes in the first round won the Democratic or Republican nomination.
But that wasn’t the case in at least two council races. Instead, two candidates who started slightly behind the frontrunner in the first round managed to rack up second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-ranked votes to take the lead, a turn of events voting experts say is exceedingly rare.
In Harlem’s District 9, first-time candidate and community organizer Kristin Richardson Jordan is set to overtake incumbent City Council Member Bill Perkins; and in Elmhurst and Jackson Heights’ District 25, Shekar Krishnan, a tenant attorney and activist, narrowly overtook small-business owner Yi Andy Chen in the last round of counting ballots.
In a third council race on Staten Island for Republican Councilmember Steven Matteo’s seat, the outcome had also flipped, though one candidate is currently under investigation for submitting fraudulent absentee ballots that potentially impacted the results in that district.
“I view the result as a reflection of the incredible strength of the the multigenerational, multicultural, multilingual coalition that we built that really reflects all that’s so special about Jackson Heights and Elmhurst,” said Krishnan, who is one of three likely incoming members of South Asian descent, the first to join the city council. Krishnan was ahead on primary night, but fell behind Chen on first votes when absentee and affidavit ballots were factored in. He pulled ahead again by 800 votes, when ranked-choice tabulations were run.
Chen said he’d be waiting for the final results before conceding. “I don’t feel confident about the whole process,” he said.
Again. One more time for the folks in the back these are the Black & Brown women who made it happen. Again. Black & Brown women. Again. the people of Harlem. Again. 100% grassroots. Report the real story. I say this with all radical love 💗😘 pic.twitter.com/kUVGEsGuTy
— Kristin Richardson Jordan (KRJ) NY City Council 9 (@Kristin4Harlem) July 8, 2021
With 13 candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in Harlem, Jordan managed to scrape her way to victory ahead of Council Member Bill Perkins, who has served Harlem in the council and state senate for over two decades. When first choices were all tabulated, Jordan was behind Perkins by 525 votes but then she surpassed him by just 100 votes after amassing lower-ranked votes.
“We had the momentum and I think we had a lot of strength as a campaign, but with  people in a race and an incumbent who had been in office for 20 years, there’s no way this could have happened without the support of ranked-choice,” she said.
While Perkins is well-respected in the community, THE CITY had reported those close to him had raised concerns about signs of memory loss and disorientation. Perkins barely raised money or campaigned this election cycle and declined to participate in a debate Gotham Gazette hosted. The latest campaign finance records show he spent just $4,180 to the $174,625 in private and matching funds Jordan spent. Perkins’ campaign did not return requests for comment.
Jordan said she could not have pulled ahead without the new system which she believes benefits campaigns that do the most groundwork.
“The grassroots candidate gets a leg up with ranked-choice,” she said, adding she and her volunteers were able to continue conversations with people asking for their second or third rank even after the person had told them they were ranking someone else first.
In most cases of ranked-choice elections, the person in first place before any ranked choice tabulations tends to widen the gap when rankings are factored in, according to Rob Richie with Fair Vote, a national nonprofit that advocates for and studies ranked-choice voting outcomes across the country.
“The virtues of being a good ranked-choice voting candidate carry over to often doing well at getting first choices,” he said.
A candidate who started off behind and then surpassed the frontrunner through ranked-choice rounds, like we saw in the 9th, 25th and 50th city council districts, is uncommon. Only 3.8% of the 375 elections studied by Fair Vote since 2004 saw a candidate in second or third place win the election.
Even though ranked-choice voting didn’t change the outcome from first-round Election Day tabulations, in most cases, Richie said it had a big impact on races across the city.
“This did change how these elections took place,” he said. “No one was told not to run. People were not saying, ‘Oh don’t vote for that person because it might split the vote.’ You’re sort of free of conventional wisdom.”