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Why we may not know who won the NYC mayoral primary for weeks

New Yorkers listened to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speak at the AAPI Democracy Project's "Voting is Justice Rally" in Chinatown on Sunday in New York.
New Yorkers listened to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speak at the AAPI Democracy Project's "Voting is Justice Rally" in Chinatown on Sunday in New York.Brittainy Newman/Associated Press

NEW YORK — The New York City primary election is Tuesday, but it could be weeks before we find out who won the top contest — the Democratic primary for mayor.

Given the electoral makeup of the city, the winner of that contest is highly likely to be elected mayor in November. On Tuesday night, we should find out which candidate is leading among the ballots cast in-person on primary day and during nine days of early voting.

But election officials must then wait for tens of thousands of absentee ballots to arrive, and those will need to be counted as well.

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And there is a new wrinkle this year that makes the timeline more complicated: The city is using ranked-choice voting for the first time in a mayoral race. Only New Yorkers’ first-choice votes will be counted right away, but their other choices could potentially be decisive.

Here’s what to expect.

When we will know who won the Democratic primary for mayor?

We might not have an official winner until the week of July 12. But we will find out some information before that.

If a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, he or she wins outright. But with 13 Democrats on the ballot this year, that is highly unlikely. If no one wins a majority, the rankings come into play.

In ranked-choice voting, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and his or her votes are reallocated to whichever candidate his or her supporters ranked next. This continues until there are just two candidates left, with the winner being the one who receives the majority of votes.

The city’s Board of Elections plans to reveal the first round of ranked-choice results on June 29, and it will release updated results once a week after that as absentee ballots are counted.

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The results posted on July 6 are expected to include some absentee ballots, according to the Board of Elections, but more complete results should arrive the week of July 12.

Why will it take so long to find out the winner?

Absentee ballots are not due until a week after primary day, and voters have time after that to “cure” any problems that arise.

The city’s Board of Elections has received about 210,000 requests for absentee ballots, and in a closely fought race like this one, those votes could make a difference. More than 68,000 people have filled out and returned their absentee ballots so far.

And perhaps more significantly, we cannot assume that the candidate who is winning after first-choice votes are counted on primary night will end up victorious. Another candidate could win more second- and third-choice votes and overtake that candidate.

That’s why proponents of ranked-choice voting are urging New Yorkers to be patient.

“Democracy takes time, and every vote counts,” said Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, a good government group. “Accurate and fair election results are worth waiting for.”

Is the candidate who is ahead on primary night likely to win?

Ranked-choice voting is used in other cities like San Francisco, and the candidate who is ahead after the first round usually prevails.

But there have been exceptions, including the 2010 mayoral election in Oakland, Calif., in which Jean Quan won despite placing second in the first round. Quan collected more second- and third-choice votes than her top rival, boosting her to victory.

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So be wary of any candidate who tries to declare victory on Tuesday night.

What should voters look for as election results arrive?

The campaigns will look at two key figures on election night: voter turnout and the gap between the two candidates who get the most votes.

There are about 3.2 million registered Democrats in New York City. In the last competitive mayoral primary, in 2013, about 700,000 Democrats voted.

More than 191,000 people cast their ballots during the early voting period that ended Sunday.

If overall turnout is high, that could help someone like Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate, who is courting new and disengaged voters.

If turnout is low, that could help a candidate like Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, who has support from unions and party leaders who are highly likely to show up at the polls.

The campaigns will also examine the gap between the top two candidates and whether the person in first place on primary night is winning by a wide margin. If that is the case, even a strong showing by another candidate as voters’ second and third choices might not make up the difference.

What about the Republican primary?

The Republican primary for mayor is much simpler. There are only two candidates: Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels, and Fernando Mateo, an entrepreneur.

We should know the winner on primary night based on who has a majority of votes.

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The winner of the Republican primary will face off against the winner of the Democratic one in the general election on Nov. 2.

Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 6 to 1 in New York City, meaning it is likely, though not guaranteed, that the Democratic candidate will win in November.