New Yorkers are using a new voting system citywide for the first time, but in interviews, many seemed characteristically unfazed: “It’s real easy if people just learn how to read.”

A New York City mayoral race that began over Zoom during the height of the pandemic came down to street campaigning in its final hours on Monday, with as many as half a million voters preparing to cast ballots when polls open on Tuesday.

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The question is: Will they know what to do with those ballots when they get them?

Ready or not, voters will make history in primary elections on Tuesday when New York becomes the largest place in the country to use ranked-choice voting, a system where individuals select up to five candidates in order of preference that has been tried only in Maine and some smaller cities.

The system can breathe new life into a candidate’s prospects as the counting plays out — but only if voters fill the ballots properly, a worry among some candidates and voting experts. It is also all but certain to make declaring a victor a slow process that will go well beyond Tuesday night, since the city Board of Elections will not begin tabulating the ranked choices until June 29.

The system itself has become a campaign issue in the final hours. Two Democratic candidates for mayor, Kathryn Garcia and Andrew Yang, joined in an 11th-hour alliance in hopes of unseating the presumed favorite, Eric Adams. In turn, Mr. Adams attacked the strategy — not uncommon in ranked-choice elections — as a way to disenfranchise Black and Latino voters. Mr. Yang, Ms. Garcia and even Maya Wiley, who has no such alliance, said he was wrong.

Interviews with dozens of early voters across the city in recent days suggest that while there may be pockets of concern about the new system, the fears of confusion and talk of disenfranchisement are overblown. In fact, many voters say they are just fine with the new system.

“It’s real easy if people just learn how to read,” said Debra Titus, 59, voting early in Clifton on Staten Island on Wednesday. Chris Walton, 42, nearby, agreed: “I forgot my glasses, but it was still pretty simple,” he said.

The interviews indicated that voters seemed to split roughly into three groups: highly motivated individuals who have studied the field and planned their choices in advance, those who have a chosen favorite but know little of the rest of the group, and those with little interest in filling any of the ovals beyond their first choice.

“I voted for who made me feel good — you know, within reason,” said Claire Landsbaum, 28, a photographer casting an early voting ballot in Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, declining to say who that was.

This year’s primary had a lengthy early voting period, a change from the last time New Yorkers voted for mayor.
Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Jane Lemiszko, 65, a retired health care administrator voting in Prospect Heights, said after her top pick, Ms. Wiley, she was less certain.

And she was more stymied by other races on the ballot, including comptroller, public advocate, City Council and more.

“I just went with first and second, that’s all right, kind of ‘Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,’” she said. “Definitely not the people who I’m against, but putting in some kind of order the people who sounded OK.”

Others were outright skeptical or confused.

“I don’t know which vote they are going to take — are they going to take my first pick or second pick?” asked Reginald Thomas, 58, on Monday in Harlem. “How are they going to figure that out?”

Yvette Chavis, a marketing consultant, had just one question: Why?

“I don’t understand why we need it, first and foremost,” she said Monday in Harlem. “Why is it better than what we had in the past?”

There are about 3.2 million registered Democrats in New York City. Approximately 700,000 Democrats voted in the last competitive mayoral primary, in 2013. More than 191,000 people voted early this year in the period that ended Sunday, and more than 68,000 people have returned completed absentee ballots so far. The winner of the Democratic primary will be highly favored to become the next mayor.

Recent polls have shown Mr. Adams to be the front-runner in a field of 13 Democrats, but with fewer than 30 percent of first-choice votes. In such a tight contest, how voters rank their picks is almost certain to decide the winner. And New Yorkers seem to be making those choices in ways that are unique to them, with no apparent trend.

Desiree Rios for The New York Times

“For as opinionated of a city as we are, ranked-choice voting seemed to make sense,” Debbie Fife said after casting her ballot on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Some came to early voting stations armed with handwritten lists and sample ballots. “I had a lot of friends that told me they were coming into the booth with notes for the first time,” said Mike White, who lives in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, works in public health and ranked Ms. Wiley first because Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed her. “So that’s definitely a real thing.”

Yanitza Jones, 25, entered her polling station in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn last week with her copy of the city’s official voter guide in hand and her ranked-choice picks for mayor written down in order.

“Since this is my first time voting,” she said, “I wanted to make it count.”

Karsten Moran for The New York Times

With ranked-choice voting, if no single candidate wins more than 50 percent of first-choice votes, the candidate in last place is eliminated, and the first-place votes for that candidate are redistributed to those voters’ second choices. When voters’ second choices are eliminated, their votes go to their third-choice candidates, and so on. The rounds of elimination continue until there are just two candidates left, at which point the candidate in the lead is declared the winner. That tabulating process could last into mid-July, city officials say.

In Prospect Lefferts Gardens in Brooklyn, Alcira Boxill, 52, joined her mother, Shirley Boxill, 77, to vote and to help her navigate the ballot.

“It’s not that it’s a hard concept for the elderly,” said Alcira Boxill, “but you really have to explain it to them.”

“Well, it looked easy to me, because you did it,” her mother said, laughing.

Yolanda Mason, 41, preparing to vote in Fort Greene in Brooklyn, said she planned on doing things the old way. “The way I normally do — my first choice,” she said. “I don’t have time to go through it like, ‘One, two, three, four, five.’ No.”

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Likewise, Hannah Josiah, 49, a voter outside of the Bronx Supreme Court in Concourse, said the system frustrated her. “Either you like that person, you’re committed to that person, but instead you give me all these different options,” she said. “It just confuses people more.”

Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Some spread their votes among candidates they admired equally, regardless of whether they were considered long shots. Others eager to usher in the city’s first female mayor — “I’m leaning toward the ladies,” said George D. Beamon, 61, of Bedford-Stuyvesant — packed their picks with women.

Others saw ranked-choice voting as an opportunity to game their ballots in ways that weren’t available before. Sam Kahn, 25, voting in Prospect Heights, said he ranked Ms. Wiley as first choice, but then he chose someone he liked more but didn’t think could win, Dianne Morales, second.

David Anziska, 42, a lawyer in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, said he wanted Ms. Garcia to win. But to increase the chances that she plays a major role in city government even if she loses, he chose Mr. Yang for his second slot because Mr. Yang has said that he would appoint her deputy mayor. (Mr. Anziska did this before the two candidates teamed up on Saturday.)

“She’s by far the most qualified. We need a mayor who knows how the city actually runs,” he said.

Still others went in with an “anyone-but-(insert name)” strategy. Louise Lauren, 29, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant and works in the solar power industry, chose Ms. Wiley first, then four other candidates, the name of her fifth choice escaping her moments later — but she knew who it was not.

“I wanted to make sure that someone I didn’t want, such as Yang, didn’t make it in the top five,” she said.

The system was not without its hiccups. During early voting, voters who accidentally marked more than one first choice were escorted to a desk where workers deleted that ballot and replaced it with a new one. In Staten Island, City Council candidate Kelvin Richards visited a polling place on Wednesday and heard confusion firsthand.

“I had a person who said she voted for me five times,” he said.

New ballots aside, the race is a reminder of how the election of a mayor is so much more deeply personal than, say, a governor, or even a president.

In Bedford-Stuyvesant, Mr. Beamon, a maintenance worker at the Princeton Club of New York, remembered the mayor from his childhood, John Lindsay, because “my mom and dad were crazy about him.”

“We need a man like him again,” he said, hastily adding that the candidate he favors is Ms. Garcia.

Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

The outsize impact a mayor has on the life of New Yorkers, and the likelihood of interacting with them directly, means firsthand experience can play a big role in the voting booth.

Mohammad Sarif, 65, from Hollis, Queens, said he liked Mr. Adams because the candidate stopped by his mosque once. And Melinda Marzal, 53, in Bushwick in Brooklyn, chose him for first place because, she said, “when I was walking my dog, he stopped to pet my dog.”

Lois Jackson, 78, from Laurelton, Queens, voted for Shaun Donovan because two important figures in her life had connections to him: Barack Obama, who appointed him to his administration, and her pastor, who supports him.

Alexandra James, 60, who voted in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, believes rents should be lowered and that Mr. Adams is right for the job — and if he doesn’t deliver, she knows where to lodge her complaints.

“If he doesn’t help us,” she said, “I’m going straight to his office.”

Alexandra Petri, Ashley Wong, Precious Fondren, Iman Stevenson, Melissa Guerrero, Sadef Ali Kully, Sean Piccoli, Diane Bezucha and Nate Schweber contributed reporting.