More than a week after voting in the New York mayoral election concluded, voters are more confused than ever about who the city’s next mayor will be.
What’s the problem? Critics of the city’s new ranked-choice voting system would have you believe that it has created complexity and confusion. There are already moves afoot to eliminate the system. But that’s an unwarranted response that points the finger of blame in the wrong direction.
The new approach to voting isn’t the problem. The problem is the old approach of the New York City Board of Elections.
“I think it’s fair to say that this has nothing to do with ranked-choice voting,” says Rob Richie of the election reform group Fair Vote, “and everything to do with mistakes that the Board of Elections has made this month.”
Richie’s right. The gang that couldn’t shoot straight has shot itself in the foot again.
“The group that bought voting machines that didn’t work when it was too humid, that couldn’t keep track of its own technology, that disqualified more than 80,000 mail-in ballots in the 2020 primaries, admitted Tuesday that—surprise—it messed up the first calculation of ranked-choice voting,” cried a New York Post editorial.
The rival New York Daily News was just as blunt. “Ballot Bungle,” announced the paper’s Wednesday morning headline. “What an absolute mess!” expostulated the paper. “The Board of Elections hurled the city’s first-ever ranked-choice mayoral race into disarray Tuesday by releasing updated results showing Eric Adams’ lead in the contest shrinking drastically—only to withdraw those tabulations hours later due to an embarrassing counting error.”
In a nutshell what happened is this: One week after Election Day, the Board of Elections ran its first ranked tally of votes in the Democratic primary for mayor. Voters had been allowed to rank their top five choices. In cases where a voter’s first choices failed to gain traction, the recalculation process then redistributed votes to their next choices. It’s a simple process that is carried out on a regular basis in other cities (such as San Francisco), states (such as Maine), and nations (such as Australia and Ireland).
But, in New York City, the Board of Elections screwed things up. Royally. And the board is repeating at least some of the mistakes it’s already made—guaranteeing even more chaos and controversy.
On Tuesday afternoon, the board surprised election observers with an announcement that the nine-point lead enjoyed by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams in the initial count had shrunk to two points. Civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley, who had been in second place, was now in third and listed as “eliminated.” The new second-place candidate was former New York sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, who on the basis of transferred votes had moved up from third.
Savvy election watchers quickly noted, however, that the numbers didn’t add up. It looked as if an extra 140,000 votes had been added to the overall total.
The board acknowledged that there was a “discrepancy” and pulled the “results” that had been posted hours earlier. Then, after a chaotic few more hours, the board acknowledged that “approximately 135,000 additional records” had been included. The “additional records” were test ballots that had not been cast by actual voters. In an epic screw-up, they had been included so-called “test ballots”—which were not cast by voters—with the more than 900,000 actual votes in the pool used for the ranked-choice voting calculation.
The board announced on Tuesday evening that it had removed all the test votes and “will upload election night results, cross-referencing against election night reporting software for verification. The cast vote record will be re-generated and the RCV rounds will be re-tabulated.”
So, as of midnight on what will surely be remembered as one of the most bizarre days in the often bizarre history of New York elections, the Adams lead had not necessarily collapsed. Garcia had not necessarily pulled into a strong second-place position. And Wiley had not necessarily been “eliminated.”
Then came Wednesday, when the Board of Elections released another set of results, which showed a close race with Garcia in second and Wiley listed as “eliminated.”
But, wait, there are still as many as 125,000 uncounted absentee ballots. So, as former New York City public advocate Betsy Gotbaum, who now runs the group Citizens Union, reminds us, “Today’s count is not the final count.”
Thus, after another day of confusion, the race may not be as close as the board’s “updated” figures suggest: Garcia may not be in second, and Wiley (who’s almost tied with Garcia) certainly isn’t eliminated.
“Yet again,” declared New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday, “the fundamental structural flaws of the Board of Elections are on display.”
Those structural flaws run deep. “Like clockwork, with every election in New York City comes a common refrain: Can’t we do something about the city’s Board of Elections?” explained a savvy assessment of the board published last year by The City. “The notorious BOE has bungled so much over the years, even good-government watchdog groups struggle to keep it all straight.”
Run by 10 commissioners who are appointed by the Democratic and Republican parties of the city’s five boroughs, the largely unaccountable board is, in the words of Common Cause New York, “tethered to political parties” and its “staffing and hiring processes reflect this peculiarity.”
Defined by partisanship, favoritism, cronyism, and nepotism, the Board of Elections has for years inspired debates about whether its disastrous management of elections—which has included mangled absentee voting procedures, botched ballots, insufficient polling places, failed equipment, and the purging of qualified voters from the rolls—are caused by corruption or incompetence.
Now, at a critical moment in the city’s history, the board is again mangling things so badly that investigations are being demanded, lawsuits are being filed, and confusion has taken hold. “This error by the Board of Elections is not just a failure to count votes properly today, it is the result of generations of failures that have gone unaddressed,” said Wiley. “Sadly it is impossible to be surprised.”
The question at this point is whether it is possible for the board to get things right. Mayor de Blasio is calling for “an immediate, complete re-canvass of the BOE’s vote count and a clear explanation of what went wrong.”
Good idea. But let’s also clarify what didn’t go wrong.
There was no problem with ranked-choice voting. “Ranked-choice voting strengthened our democracy, giving voters more choice and more voice this election cycle,” Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York explained on Wednesday. “What we saw yesterday has nothing to do with ranked -hoice voting, but is a deeper problem about how we administer elections in New York.”
Lerner warned, “The longtime opponents of RCV seizing this moment to attack a more democratic system of elections—that exit polling shows voters overwhelmingly support—are misguided, and misleading the public. We remain focused on moving forward to ensure the responsible and reliable results New Yorkers demand.”
The way to do that is by recognizing a simple dynamic of ranked-choice voting: It doesn’t make sense to announce “results” until all the ballots are in hand.
The Board of Elections should stop rushing a process it established—when it allowed for the late arrival of absentee ballots. Instead of churning out incomplete and inaccurate numbers, the board should wait until all the ballots are accounted for. Then, and only then, as FairVote’s Rob Richie says, “Let’s count all the votes.”