Tomorrow voters in New York City will head to the polls (locate your voting site) for a special election to elect a new Public Advocate, filling the seat vacated by Tish James when she made history and became New York State’s Attorney General. The Public Advocate is a citywide official whose job is to be a watchdog on behalf of the people, serving as a check on City agencies and investigating complaints about public services and officials.

The role has only existed since 1994, and most people of who have held the position have used it (or tried to) as a political stepping stone: Mark Green, the first ever person in this role ran for Mayor in 2001; Bill de Blasio held the office from 2009 to 2013; and Tish James last had the job.

(The outlier here is Betsy Gotbaum, who was the third woman in New York City to hold citywide office. Although she could have run for a third term in 2009, she chose not to, and instead “got a new hip, a new dog, a new husband and a new job—in that order.” She’s 80 now, so she probably has better things to do than try to govern / cat herd on behalf of New Yorkers. Instead, she is executive director of the Citizens Union).

The Public Advocate is also first in line to become acting mayor, should something happen to the sitting mayor (death, kicked out of office, emergency while they are visiting other states…) The odds aren’t big of this actually happening — only two mayors have died in office in all of New York’s history, both over 100 years ago. (The last guy got shot in the throat and lived three years before he died, in case there’s any dispute about how tough New Yorker’s are!)        

This is a chaotic, confusing election in more ways than are fully fathomable, so let’s break it down:

  1. Because this is a special election, there was no primary. And because there was no primary there are a 17 (yes, SEVENTEEN) candidates (mostly Democrats) running, and all candidates are being identified by their ballot lines, which are like campaign taglines (Fix The MTA, For The People, etc.). This set-up means that someone could win with a very small percentage of the vote (like, 6%. No not a margin of 6%. Just 6% of the total votes = 100 / 17). See below for full list of candidates and platform. 
  2. Because this is a special election and there is no primary, anybody can vote for anybody. Unlike in a primary, all candidates will appear on everyone’s ballots, identified by their name and ballot line. The ballot will not show the candidates by party affiliation and the ballot will list the candidates in a surprise order (will it be alphabetical by name, by ballot line, random? We’ll find out!)

….. Confused / panicked? We’re just getting started. Here’s where it gets wild.

  1. This election is just to hold the job thru December 31, 2019. What? Yes. The way this is working is that the remainder of Tish James’ term is being divided into two mini-terms: one through the end of 2019, and the other from 2020 until the new public advocate is elected and begins the job on January 1, 2022. The election for the first mini-term is now, while the general election for the second mini-term is on November 5, 2019.  
  2. Wait, the general election for the January 1, 2020 – December 31, 2021 term is in November? Yes, and that means that before the general election there is primary, on September 10, 2019.

Dizzy yet?

  1. What that means is that the person who wins the seat in the special election in February will also (presumably) be running to keep that seat in the September primary and the November general election. To recap: This upcoming election is to elect someone to the position for ten months, before there’s another two elections for role of Public Advocates later this year.    

So where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us in an interesting predicament. Firstly since the vote will be split literally 17 ways. Secondly since this election is only for such a short period, during which least half of the time, the newly elected public advocate will be running their very quickly approaching reelection campaign.

In New York City, over two-thirds of voters are DemocratsSome people are concerned that votes will be split among the democratic party affiliated and progressive candidates, and the more conservative, or (GASP!) Republican candidate will win by default.

We can assume that if a Democrat or progressive is elected, they will have the upper-hand as the incumbent in September and November. If a Republican or conservative is elected, they face an uphill battle to hold the seat, but likely a less crowded field of primary opponents.  

So, what to do? Well, there are a few options:

  1. Research the candidates and make a very elaborate qualifications and pros / cons spreadsheet to decide how to vote. (Ballotpedia has gotten this party started.)
  2. Go in blind and vote for the ballot line that speaks most to you.
  3. Play a little (low risk) strategic chess. Regardless of your political leanings, vote for GOP candidate Eric Ulrich. Seem crazy?

Here’s a few reasons why it would be good if he won: he’ll certainly be a watchdog (cat!) to de Blasio, his actions will be carefully scrutinized and certainly help drive the focus of the elections later this year, his occupying the seat will clear the way for a juicy democratic primary in September.

(For the Democrats among you, an additional motivator: Ulrich holds one of three GOP seats in the NYC Council. If he wins on Tuesday, his City Council seat will need to be filled in a special election that could likely be won by a Democrat.)

  1. Love special elections, but want to vote for a Democrat? Voting for one of nine other candidates would also trigger a special election to fill their current job, should they win the Public Advocate race.

The 17 candidates are (in the order they will appear on your ballot):

Enjoy the “Choose Your Own Adventure” that is this election by exercising your beautiful right to VOTE!