New York Vote-Counting Fiasco Turns Mayoral Race Upside Down

New York City election officials thrust the race for the next mayor into turmoil Tuesday after erroneously counting test ballots alongside election night results, producing about 135,000 “dummy ballots” that skewed results of the city’s first major test of a new ranked-choice voting system.

The major blunder forced the Board of Elections to retract preliminary results it had posted hours earlier. The board promised to republish corrected results Wednesday that will show whether Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams will maintain his lead over former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia and civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley.

There’s no indication of what time the new results will come on Wednesday but outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio called on the election board to issue a complete recanvass of the vote count. The Adams campaign also said it filed a petition for court oversight of the count.

Practically, the results released Tuesday had little bearing on determining the final winner of the race, which won’t be certified until 125,000 absentee votes are counted beginning next week. This week’s results are meant to show only who would have won the election if absentee ballots weren’t included, an incremental data release intended to provide voters with at least some transparency into the process.

But the debacle marks an inauspicious start for New York’s new system of ranked-choice voting, which asks primary voters to list their top five candidates in order of preference instead of picking just one.

Before Tuesday, the Board of Elections’ experience with ranked-choice voting was limited to tabulating a handful of special elections by hand. New York State officials approved the software necessary to tabulate hundreds of thousands of votes only last month.

It’s that new software that apparently flummoxed city election officials. The Board of Elections said it had conducted “rigorous and mandatory” pre-election testing on its systems — but then failed to clear those test results from the system before counting actual ballots.

“The board apologizes for the error and has taken immediate measures to ensure the most accurate up-to-date results are reported,” the board said in a statement posted on Twitter.

The discrepancies came to light after at least two mayoral campaigns — most notably that of the front-runner, Adams — complained that the ranked-choice votes published in the early afternoon included about 142,000 more ballots than the election night results indicated.

Shortly after 6 p.m. in New York, the board said it was investigating a discrepancy in the ballots, but didn’t elaborate. Two hours later, the results simply disappeared on the election board’s website without notice. It wasn’t until after 10 p.m. that the board explained what the error was and why it retracted the previously-posted results.

On Wednesday, de Blasio issued a statement on the debacle saying “yet again, the fundamental structural flaws of the Board of Elections are on display.”

De Blasio, a longtime critic of the Board of Elections, is calling for a complete recanvass of the vote count and an explanation of what went wrong.

The Adams campaign said it filed a petition for court oversight of the election count and asked for a judge to review ballots. “We invite the other campaigns to join us and petition the court as we all seek a clear and trusted conclusion to this election,” the campaign said in a statement on Wednesday.

Delay Upon Delay

“Today’s mistake by the Board of Elections was unfortunate,” Adams said in a statement Tuesday night. “It is critical that New Yorkers are confident in their electoral system, especially as we rank votes in a citywide election for the first time.”

Those faulty results could have contributed to what looked like a surge of support for Garcia that showed her narrowing the gap with Adams. On Tuesday night, she said the release of inaccurate results was “deeply troubling and requires a much more transparent and complete explanation.”

Adams would be the second Black man to lead the U.S.’s most populous city. Either Garcia or Wiley would be the first woman.

The vote-counting was already delayed by New York’s unusually long absentee ballot deadlines and by the board’s decision to release updated results only once a week. The faulty results released Tuesday were preliminary and did not include the 125,419 absentee ballots returned by Tuesday’s deadline. The board has said a final winner may not be known until July 12.

“I think it’s fair to say that this has nothing to do with ranked-choice voting and everything to do with mistakes that the Board of Elections has made this month,” said Rob Ritchie of FairVote, which advocated for the preference voting system in New York. “So while this is frustrating for everyone, nothing is fundamentally broken.”

Decades of Scrutiny

The New York City Board of Elections has long been criticized as an inefficient haven of partisan patronage made up of 10 party-appointed commissioners -- five Democrats and five Republicans. Staffers have included spouses, children and friends of elected officials and party stalwarts.

The board has come under intense scrutiny for decades after elections it managed were marred by ethics violations, faulty absentee ballots, machine breakdowns and long lines at polling places. A 2013 investigation by the city found “illegalities and misconduct” in employment practices, operations and election administration. Last June, it took six weeks to call a winner in two congressional primaries after a surge of absentee ballots overwhelmed the board.

“Today, we have once again seen the mismanagement that has resulted in a lack of confidence in results, not because there is a flaw in our election laws, but because those who implement it have failed too many times,” Wiley said in a statement Tuesday.

The mishap also comes amid growing skepticism of voting systems fomented by former President Donald Trump, who has claimed, falsely, that his loss to Joe Biden last year was the result of widespread fraud. Those allegations were repeatedly dismissed by state and federal courts.

“The entire country is watching,” said Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s former public advocate who currently runs a good governance group called Citizens Union. “It is imperative that the Board of Elections get the implementation of ranked-choice voting right.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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