Ranked-Choice Voting Can Make Maya Wiley the Next Mayor of New York

Ranked-Choice Voting Can Make Maya Wiley the Next Mayor of New York

Ranked-Choice Voting Can Make Maya Wiley the Next Mayor of New York

If progressives rank their votes effectively—by making Wiley their No. 1, No. 2, or even No. 3—they can consolidate their power and overtake the centrists.


New York City mayoral candidate Maya Wiley is having a moment. She has surged from fifth place in the crowded Democratic primary contest for the city’s top job to No. 2—moving ahead of longtime front-runner Andrew Yang and closing in on current front-runner Eric Adams—according to a PIX11 survey released Wednesday night.

The new numbers put an exclamation mark on a remarkable few days in which the civil rights lawyer has entered the top tier of the mayoral competition as a progressive with a path to victory. Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, one of the most popular officials in the city, announced his support on Wednesday, urging progressives to “unite to elect and rank Maya Wiley to be the second Black and first woman mayor of the City of New York.” US Senator Elizabeth Warren weighed in with an endorsement of Wiley as a “progressive changemaker” whose message matters not just for NYC but for movement politics well beyond the city limits. Enthusiastic Wiley backers rallied on 57th Street before Thursday night’s mayoral debate, and the Strokes announced they’ll be playing an in-person concert at Irving Plaza for her Saturday night. The “Maya-mentum” was supercharged last weekend when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez signaled, “Maya Wiley is the one. She will be a progressive in Gracie Mansion.” AOC joined Representative Jamaal Bowman and a crowd of progressive legislators in endorsing Wiley for the Democratic Party’s nomination. Around the same time, the National Organization for Women’s New York City chapter declared, “Let’s make history, NYC!” and urged voters to make Wiley the city’s first woman mayor. And the Working Families Party moved Wiley to the top of its list of endorsements, with a call for progressives to work together to prevent either of the two centrists who have long led in the polls, Brooklyn Borough President Adams and former presidential candidate Yang, from becoming the next mayor of the nation’s largest city.

“As Eric Adams and Andrew Yang continue to push dangerous pro-corporate, pro-carceral agendas,” warned WFP state director Sochie Nnaemeka, “it’s more important than ever that we consolidate progressive strength to ensure a working people’s champion wins this year.”

The call for consolidation of progressive energy in a progressive city has been heard before. Sometimes it has worked, as when Democrats nominated David Dinkins for mayor in the historic 1989 primary. Often, however, it has failed, as when progressives split their votes in a 1977 primary that might have nominated feminist Bella Abzug.

This year is different. New York Democrats aren’t nominating their candidate according to the old rules of 1977, or 1989. The ranked-choice voting system that was adopted in a 2019 referendum allows primary voters to rank up to five candidates. If a voter’s first choice doesn’t get traction, her votes transfer to the second choice, and the process of redistribution continues until one candidate has more than 50 percent of the votes.

For progressives, ranked-choice voting makes real the prospect of the consolidation the WFP’s Nnaemeka proposes. New Yorkers who care about economic, social, and racial justice can back their favorite candidate—Wiley or former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales or City Comptroller Scott Stringer—as their first choice and give a second choice to another progressive. They don’t have to abandon candidates they have aligned with but who now seem to be fading. They can rank a preferred candidate up top, and if lightning strikes for that candidate, it’s a win. But on the chance that Morales and Stringer, both of whom have been battered by negative headlines, don’t make it, the second- or third-choice votes of their backers could still nominate a progressive.

Wiley is positioned to be that progressive. After months of working to catch up with Adams and Yang and, more recently, former New York City Sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, who got a boost when she was endorsed by The New York Times and the Daily News, Wiley is gaining ground at an exponential rate: jumping from 9 percent in a late May PIX11/NewsNation/Emerson College poll to 17 percent in the survey the group released Wednesday evening. The attention she is now receiving, thanks to the headline-grabbing AOC endorsement, in particular, opens up the prospect that she could overtake the front-runners. But that will happen only if progressives play their cards—make that ballots—right.

The surge Wiley is experiencing on the eve of early voting—which begins Saturday, June 12—is real. Even if it continues, however, it does not guarantee that Wiley, or any other progressive, will be the Democratic pick when all the ranked votes are tabulated after voting finishes on Tuesday, June 22. Polls and analyses by political veterans suggest that Adams and Yang, with their high name recognition and huge campaign treasuries, could yet finish on top. AOC is right when she says, “If we don’t come together as a movement we will get a New York City built by and for billionaires.” To prevent such a result, progressives have to rank Wiley high on their ballots. Even if they are backing another candidate, the former head of the city’s Civilian Review Board needs to be their No. 2 or No. 3.

The genius of ranked-choice voting is that it allows first-place votes for Wiley to be consolidated with second-place votes for her by Morales and Stringer backers.

To assure that voters recognize what’s at stake, progressive elected officials and organizations that have backed other candidates now need to communicate more about ranked-choice voting in general, about the importance of marking multiple choices on the ballot, and about the importance—at this critical juncture—of making Wiley one of those choices. It’s urgent that they harness the full power of ranked-choice voting to unify and empower voters who are committed to economic and social and racial justice.

This is especially true for progressive unions, which have spread endorsements around to a number of candidates. They will be doing a lot of pre-election communication with members and allies in the days before the election. One of the best ways to explain ranked-choice voting to members and allies is to show the way it works by actually ranking their top two, or top three, candidates.

A large union that ranks Wiley as a second choice does nothing to diminish their first-choice support for Stringer or Garcia. Similarly, a legislator who mentions Wiley as a second choice does nothing to undermine their first-choice support for Morales or even Yang (who collected a number of progressive endorsements in the early stages of the race).

In a few years, when voters, elected officials, unions, and activist groups have more experience with ranked-choice voting, progressive tactical voting will become instinctual. But New Yorkers don’t have the luxury of time. This election—because it is being held on the cusp of a pandemic, in the midst of a climate crisis, and at a moment of reckoning with police violence and systemic racism—will define the city’s future for decades to come.

If progressives seize the opportunity that ranked-choice voting offers them, they don’t have to wait. They can elect a transformational mayor in 2021.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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