The race for the Democratic nomination to be the next mayor of New York City was thrown into chaos late Tuesday as the city’s embattled Board of Elections acknowledged a monumental screw-up in its first major experiment with ranked-choice voting.
The board on Tuesday released its first results from last week’s vote, showing Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams (D) narrowly leading former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia (D), who leapfrogged former city official Maya Wiley (D) into second place after 10 rounds of reapportioning ranked-choice ballots that eliminated candidates who had fallen short.
But the results did not include more than 124,000 absentee ballots that have not yet been counted, and some of the results struck observers as odd. Late Tuesday, the board acknowledged its count had failed to clear a previous test of 135,000 sample ballots it had used to check for errors in the software.
“Board staff has removed all test ballot images from the system and will upload election night results, cross-referencing against election night reporting software for verification,” the board said in a late-night statement. “The Board apologizes for the error and has taken immediate measures to ensure the most accurate up to date results are reported.”
The candidates, and election observers who were keenly watching the ranked-choice experiment in America’s largest city, were apoplectic. Their reactions went beyond frustration with the ranked-choice system to fury at the latest wholesale failure by a Board of Elections that has proven a bastion of nepotism and ineptitude over the years.
“This error by the Board of Election is not just failure to count votes properly today, it is the result of generations of failures that have gone unaddressed,” Wiley said in a statement. “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 elections laws, but because those who implement it have failed too many times.”
The New York City Board of Elections is overseen by 10 commissioners, a Democrat and a Republican appointed from each of the city’s five boroughs. Local party organizations recommend commissioners, who are then formally appointed and confirmed by the city council.
Underneath those commissioners is a staff of political appointees — among them a director who has paid a fine for accepting gifts from a voting machine vendor and who served on another election machine company’s board while employed by the Board of Elections; a deputy executive director who was investigated for allegedly violating residency rules; an administrative manager who came under fire for approving a reimbursement for a subordinate who bought her dinner; and an operations manager who also serves as vice chair of the Brooklyn Republican Party.
The board represents one of the last major outposts of a patronage system that dominated New York City government for decades. The consequences have led to confusion, chaos and disenfranchisement in recent years.
In 2001, the Board of Elections mistakenly double-counted about 42,000 ballots in the Democratic mayoral primary runoff, giving Public Advocate Mark GreenMark GreenGOP senators seek to block dishonorable discharges for unvaccinated troops A quick reaction force in India could prevent the worst of Taliban rule in Afghanistan Overnight Defense: Troops head back to Afghanistan to aid diplomatic evacuation MORE (D) a larger lead over Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer (D) than he had won. Green went on to lose the general election to then-Republican Michael BloombergMichael BloombergWithout drastic changes, Democrats are on track to lose big in 2022 Bidens, former presidents mark 9/11 anniversary The tragedy of 9/11 — an inflection point in American history MORE.
In 2012, the board failed to count votes from several precincts in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, where then-Rep. Charlie RangelCharles (Charlie) Bernard RangelNYC snafu the latest flub from a broken elections agency The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After historic verdict, Chauvin led away in handcuffs Speaker Pelosi's change of heart on censure MORE (D) barely staved off a challenge from state Sen. Adriano EspaillatAdriano de Jesus Espaillat CabralFormer Bad Boy rapper turned politician meets with US lawmakers Biden's embrace of Trump-era border policy frustrates Democrats House at war over Jan. 6 inquiry, mask mandate MORE (D) by a 1,000-vote margin (Espaillat won the seat in 2016, when Rangel retired).
Bloomberg at the time called the board “worse than The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”
Four years later, board employees removed more than 117,000 voters from the rolls in Brooklyn, without following federal rules governing such removals. Common Cause filed suit against the board, the federal Justice Department joined the suit, and both city and state officials opened inquires. The chief clerk in Brooklyn was suspended from her position.
And in 2018, voters waited in long lines even after filling out their ballots, as scanners meant to count the two-page ballots jammed. The board’s executive director blamed the damp weather.
Even without ranked-choice voting, New York City counts its ballots painfully slowly. Results from New York’s 16th Congressional District contest in 2020, between activist and school principal Jamaal Bowman (D) and then-Rep. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelNYC snafu the latest flub from a broken elections agency Cynthia Nixon backs primary challenger to Rep. Carolyn Maloney Democrats call on Blinken to set new sexual misconduct policies at State Department MORE (D), trickled in at such a tortoise pace that The Associated Press waited 24 days after the June 23 primary to call the race for Bowman — even though he won by 15 points.
Last year’s elections were marred by screw-ups in other parts of the city: Thousands of absentee ballots did not reach voters across the city during the primary election; testimony in a lawsuit brought by one Democratic candidate who narrowly lost to Rep. Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn MaloneyHouse panel to examine states' abortion restrictions, hear from three congresswomen who've had abortions Overnight Defense & National Security: US-Australian sub deal causes rift with France Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels MORE (D) showed elections officials mailed 34,000 ballots just the day before the primary.
In the general election, almost 100,000 New York City voters — most in Brooklyn — received ballots that included the wrong names or addresses.
“I don’t know how many times we’re going to see the same thing happen at the Board of Elections and be surprised,” Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioGoogle to purchase Manhattan building for .1 billion New York to start weekly COVID-19 testing in schools Three arrested for allegedly assaulting NYC hostess who asked for COVID-19 vaccine proof MORE (D) said at the time.
In the wake of Tuesday’s failures, the state senator who chairs the committee overseeing election administration in New York pledged to hold hearings.
“We will hold that hearing this year. We will take testimony from anyone with an interest in solutions, not just tweets and hot takes,” state Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D) said on Twitter. “What happened tonight is frustrating and disappointing, and it’s easy (and, perhaps, understandable) to cast aspersions. But I urge patience and a commitment to real change.”
Other Twitter users were less charitable. Stephanie Silkowski, policy director for New York City Council member Brad Lander (D), wrote: “When I die I want the NYC Board of Elections to lower me into my grave so they can let me down one last time.”