New York’s Sloppy Vote Counting

The combination of incompetence and a new system have the mayoral race in turmoil.

Eight days ago, New York City held its Democratic primary for mayor and other city officers. Not only will we not know who won for weeks, but they’ve also accidentally counted “test ballots” and had to take 135,000 votes away.

AP (“Error mars vote count in NYC mayoral primary“):

The Democratic primary for mayor of New York City was thrown into a state of confusion Tuesday when election officials retracted their latest report on the vote count after realizing it had been corrupted by test data never cleared from a computer system.

The bungle was a black mark on New York City’s first major foray into ranked choice voting and seemed to confirm worries that the city’s Board of Elections, which is jointly run by Democrats and Republicans, was unprepared to implement the new system.

The disarray began as evening fell, when the board abruptly withdrew data it had released earlier in the day purporting to be a first round of results from the ranked choice system.

That data had indicated that Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former police captain who would be the city’s second Black mayor, had lost much of his lead and was ahead of former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia by fewer than 16,000 votes.

Then the Board of Elections tweeted that it was aware of “a discrepancy” in its report on ranked choice voting results. It didn’t initially explain what that discrepancy was, even as it pulled the data from its website.

Just before 10:30 p.m. it released a statement saying that 135,000 ballot images it had put into its computer system for testing purposes had never been cleared.

“The Board apologizes for the error and has taken immediate measures to ensure the most accurate up to date results are reported,” it said in a statement.

The results initially released Tuesday, and then withdrawn, were incomplete to begin with because they didn’t include any of the nearly 125,000 absentee ballots cast in the Democratic primary.

NYT (“New York Mayor’s Race in Chaos After Elections Board Counts 135,000 Test Ballots“) adds:

The New York City mayor’s race plunged into chaos on Tuesday night when the city Board of Elections released a new tally of votes in the Democratic mayoral primary, and then removed the tabulations from its website after citing a “discrepancy.”

[…]

The extraordinary sequence of events seeded further confusion about the outcome, and threw the closely watched contest into a new period of uncertainty at a consequential moment for the city.

For the Board of Elections, which has long been plagued by dysfunction and nepotism, this was its first try at implementing ranked-choice voting on a citywide scale. Skeptics had expressed doubts about the board’s ability to pull off the process, though it is used successfully in other cities.

Under ranked-choice voting, voters can list up to five candidates on their ballots in preferential order. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of first-choice votes in the first round, the winner is decided by a process of elimination: As the lower-polling candidates are eliminated, their votes are reallocated to whichever candidate those voters ranked next, and the process continues until there is a winner.

[…]

The results may well be scrambled again: Even after the Board of Elections sorts through the preliminary tally, it must count around 124,000 Democratic absentee ballots. Once they are tabulated, the board will take the new total that includes them and run a new set of ranked-choice elimination rounds, with a final result not expected until mid-July.

The drive to make voting easier, which I support, has had the pernicious effect of making it less trustworthy.

Eric Adams seemingly won a plurality of the vote on Election Day. But, of course, Election Day no longer exists. Some people vote early. And a lot of people, effectively, vote late because they can send their absentee ballot in on the last day and we allot an inordinate amount of time for ballots to arrive.

We used to get election results almost immediately. It was rare that we went to bed on Election Day without knowing the outcome of the race. Now, we’re expected to wait days—in this case, an entire month!—for results. Yet, over the same evolution, we have become to getting our information instantaneously.

Even absent malfeasance such as the Republican Party leadership’s attempt to falsely claim the 2020 Presidential election was somehow stolen, partisans are not going to trust a system in which their guy seemingly has the lead and then watch it slowly disappear through a mysterious process in which new votes are found and old ones are thrown out because errors are discovered.

Incompetent administration—as seen here an in the most recent run of the Iowa Caucuses—certainly don’t help. It just feeds the conspiracy theorists.

And the addition of ranked choice voting to this particular contest—which, again, I support in theory—complicates matters further. While there’s no obvious reason why a computer program can’t eliminate the votes for the bottom candidate and reallocate second place votes and so on and so forth, this particular election board somehow didn’t get its act together ahead of time. And, again, it’s feeding the conspiracists.

Some Democrats, bracing for an acrimonious new chapter in the race, are concerned that the incremental release of results by the Board of Elections — and the discovery of an error — may stir distrust of ranked-choice voting and of the city’s electoral system more broadly.

In a statement late Tuesday night, Ms. Wiley laced into the Board of Elections, calling the error “the result of generations of failures that have gone unaddressed,” and adding: “Sadly it is impossible to be surprised.”

“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,” she said. “The B.O.E. must now count the remainder of the votes transparently and ensure the integrity of the process moving forward.” Ms. Garcia said the release of the inaccurate tally was “deeply troubling and requires a much more transparent and complete explanation.” “Every ranked choice and absentee vote must be counted accurately so that all New Yorkers have faith in our democracy and our government,” she said. “I am confident that every candidate will accept the final results and support whomever the voters have elected.”

Indeed, the conspiracy theories starting flying even before the votes were cast:

Some of Mr. Adams’s supporters have already cast the ranked-choice process as an attempt to disenfranchise voters of color, an argument that intensified among some backers on Tuesday afternoon as the race had appeared to tighten, and is virtually certain to escalate should he lose his primary night lead to Ms. Garcia, who is white.

Surrogates for Mr. Adams have suggested without evidence that an apparent ranked-choice alliance between Ms. Garcia and another rival, Andrew Yang, could amount to an attempt to suppress the votes of Black and Latino New Yorkers; Mr. Adams himself claimed that the alliance was aimed at preventing a Black or Latino candidate from winning the race. In the final days of the race, Ms. Garcia and Mr. Yang campaigned together across the city, especially in neighborhoods that are home to sizable Asian American communities, and appeared together on campaign literature.

To advocates of ranked-choice voting, the round-by-round shuffling of outcomes is part of the process of electing a candidate with broad appeal. But if Ms. Garcia or Ms. Wiley were to prevail, the process — which was approved by voters in a 2019 ballot measure — would likely attract fresh scrutiny, with some of Mr. Adams’s backers and others already urging a new referendum on it.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    We shouldn’t let appeasing the conspiracy theorists influence our actions or behaviors in the slightest. There is simply nothing anyone can do to turn a fantasist into a rationalist.

    With that out of the way, it has always astounded me that the people from the five boroughs are so willing to accept the incompetence, corruption and mess that passes for “services” in NYC. The airports are a joke. I once waited in a taxi line at (Newark? Kennedy?) that was comically inept, literally like something out of a third world country. Like so much in NYC it was obvious that a high dollar contract had been awarded solely based on political or criminal considerations and the subsequent service was staffed by the absolute lowest cost labor they could find, no doubt with a turnover rate measured in weeks or months rather than years.

    I’ve never lived in the city but have many friends and relatives that live or have lived there. I’ve visited many, many times over the years and come away with the impression that it is the biggest small town in the world. The residents, many of whom originally came form outside the city, seem to be totally inward focused and simply cannot see how badly the city is run compared with virtually any other big city in the country. And that is not meant as a compliment to those other cities.

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  2. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    This isn’t just sloppy – it’s criminal.
    Talk about fodder for the anti-Democratic Republicans…the former guy should be ranting about it in, 3, 2, 1….

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  3. Michael Cain says:

    I am (overly) fond of pointing out that if HR1/S1 pass as they currently stand, New York will have to do much more in terms of tearing down and rebuilding their election system than many of the deep-red states.

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  4. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @MarkedMan:

    You learn to live with it and focus on the pieces that affect you / find ways around the problems.

    I will say that the board of elections is pretty commonly regarded, by everyone in NYC, as being political patronage central. I’d honestly have been amazed if this election hadn’t gone off the rails.

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  5. MarkedMan says:

    @HarvardLaw92:Sure. The part that astounds me is the provincialism of so many New Yorkers I meet. When my (not yet) wife was living there in the 80’s and she told her boss she was quitting her job to join the Peace Corps in Fiji and then travel the world, he was genuinely puzzled. Why would she want to leave when you could find all of that in the City (by which he meant Manhattan)? You want Thai food? We have lots of Thai restaurants run by real Thais from Thailand! Japanese, Turkish, what have you, all those people are here!

    New Yorkers have a tendency to compare the quality of their city and services only to itself, and so seem blissfully unaware that things can actually be better.

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  6. Kathy says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Doesn’t the rest of the world exist solely for the purpose of visiting NYC?

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  7. Stormy Dragon says:

    And the addition of ranked choice voting to this particular contest—which, again, I support in theory—complicates matters further. While there’s no obvious reason why a computer program can’t eliminate the votes for the bottom candidate and reallocate second place votes and so on and so forth, this particular election board somehow didn’t get its act together ahead of time. And, again, it’s feeding the conspiracists.

    The NY BOE has been a mess for decades, and RCV has been used plenty of other places with no problems at all, but sure, the real problem is that someone tried to change something.

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  8. Modulo Myself says:

    @MarkedMan:

    I don’t know many NYers who don’t think the city is a mess. I mean, the MTA is a target of constant scorn and disgust and I have never, not once, heard anyone in my life praise LGA. More likely, it’s shock when you get there and it’s not a clusterf–k.

    Regardless, the reason most NYers want to live in NYC is that they visit most other cities in America and they’re like holy hell this is just an imitation of life. Then they go back to NYC and return to dreaming of moving to SF or the Berkshires.

    Anyway, the Board of Elections is a disaster. IIRC, it’s all political appointees who online shop throughout the day. It’s not surprising that they were not prepared for something new.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    And the addition of ranked choice voting to this particular contest—which, again, I support in theory—complicates matters further. While there’s no obvious reason why a computer program can’t eliminate the votes for the bottom candidate and reallocate second place votes and so on and so forth, this particular election board somehow didn’t get its act together ahead of time. And, again, it’s feeding the conspiracists.

    The NY BOE has been a mess for decades, and RCV has been used plenty of other places with no problems at all, but sure, the real problem is that someone tried to change something.

    You have inexplicably quoted a critique of the BOE’s failure to get its act together in carrying out a change I endorse as somehow an endorsement of the status quo.

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  10. MarkedMan says:

    @Kathy: If NYC was the only large-ish city I was familiar with, I’d have to take my own comments with a large grain of salt. After all, I lived in far upstate NY, near upstate NY and far commuter distance Connecticut. Don’t all those people complain endlessly about NYC? But I grew up in adjacent suburban Chicago, and lived in the center cities of Baltimore (twice), New Orleans, Atlanta, and Shanghai. I’ve spent significant time in other cities all over the world, and way too much time in airports big, small and medium sized. So I’m pretty confident in my statement that NYC residents accept a level of chaos and ineptitude with more tolerance than any other major first world city I’m familiar with.

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  11. MarkedMan says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    Regardless, the reason most NYers want to live in NYC is that they visit most other cities in America and they’re like holy hell this is just an imitation of life.

    I guess you are right about that, but I don’t get why they actually think that. How many NYer’s are supremely confident that they are living the good life but go years without using any of the superior amenities that their city has to offer? My actual lived life in NYC has been… pretty good. Whether it was staying with friends and family, helping them move apartments around the city, going in for a show or to a museum or to take friends around that have never been there before. I’ve gone to lots of nice little local restaurants, seen some world class museums, seen some darn good plays (I’m not a fan of musicals and I’ve only come across a few high caliber non-musicals during my visits). But my experience has only been pretty good. I wouldn’t even want to make a comparison between NYC and, say, New Orleans. The vibes are so very, very different it’s not meaningful to compare them. But if I was planning a weeks vacation that didn’t involve visiting friends or family, I know that I would much rather go to New Orleans than NYC. Same for Singapore. Or Paris. San Francisco. Seattle. Toronto. Montreal.

    On the other hand I would prefer NYC over LA, and certainly over Atlanta. I lived in the later for 3 years and the vibe was very much not to my liking.

    Maybe I would feel differently if my tastes ran to the “finest” hotels and restaurants and going to gala openings at the Met, and had the kind of money to do those things as much as I wanted. But I don’t have either the inclination or the money.

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  12. MarkedMan says:

    @MarkedMan: No edit function. on the positive side I left out the High Line and the entire new construction around Ground Zero. Those things are truly unique, enriching and available to everyone in the city. World Class by any measure.

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  13. Gustopher says:

    @MarkedMan:

    We shouldn’t let appeasing the conspiracy theorists influence our actions or behaviors in the slightest. There is simply nothing anyone can do to turn a fantasist into a rationalist.

    Elections should be straightforward and transparent. Keep the conspiracy theories from spreading to the normies as much as possible.

    Meanwhile I woke up to four texts from my brothers about this, because they’re well down the path to crazy town. At least the one didn’t mention the Clovis people again.

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  14. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @MarkedMan:

    True. I can’t speak to it as well as some others here probably can, tbh. I previously worked in the city but lived in Westchester, so my experience isn’t really that valuable in answering the question. Working there is a great deal different and less informative than living there.

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  15. Gustopher says:

    @MarkedMan:

    I wouldn’t even want to make a comparison between NYC and, say, New Orleans. The vibes are so very, very different it’s not meaningful to compare them. But if I was planning a weeks vacation that didn’t involve visiting friends or family, I know that I would much rather go to New Orleans than NYC.

    When I visited New Orleans, it was the first time I really saw open, unguarded racism from a large number of white folks we encountered. And this was from people who didn’t know I had a banjo, although perhaps I give off banjo vibes.

    Any time I poked at it, the reaction was a patronizing “well, down here we have different problems, you wouldn’t understand.”

    I prefer my racism to be passive-aggressive rather than actually aggressive.

    New York City is a multicultural city. It doesn’t always work well, but it works.

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  16. Modulo Myself says:

    @MarkedMan:

    I can only speak about my experiences but it’s clear that for many young educated people the vibe of NYC offers a certain type of social freedom. The downtown/bohemian/hipster/fashion thing does not exist anywhere other than NYC, LA, SF, and Austin, and for SF and Austin I would cross out fashion and downtown. These are huge draws. In my twenties, I would go long stretches without passing above 14th street in Manhattan except to go to the opera, MOMA, or the library.

    I do love New Orleans–I spent a long, hot summer in the Garden District long ago, and it’s a great place even at its peak worst season (e.g. roaches falling from ceiling onto the dinner table and dinner) but I could not have imagined moving there to work. However, it was considered fine to drive around with no shirt while drinking beer.

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  17. MarkedMan says:

    @Gustopher: Yep, racial hostility was a real drag when I lived there. It was a constant drag and a big negative to the city. I lived there during the Edwards-Duke runoff. Racist from birth vs. actual Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

    NYC also has lots of racial tension but is at least an order of magnitude better in that respect.

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  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: I had the same experience visiting my brother in Williamsburg, VA. A real sense of “Wow! So this is what racism looks like.” Eerie. Visiting 30 years later, I didn’t have the same vibe, but Williamsburg is even whiter now than it was then and my brother and SIL don’t go outside the William and Mary/historical theme park district anymore either, so my view of the cultural milieu was probably hindered.

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