Fiasco: NYC elections board says it accidentally counted 135,000 "dummy" ballots in mayor's race

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

So the good news is there was no “steal” in the works.

The, uh, bad news is that America’s biggest city is incapable of running an election accurately and efficiently.

Yesterday the New York Board of Elections put out preliminary results from the ranked-choice balloting in the Democratic primary and revealed that underdog Kathryn Garcia had cut deeply into the lead by frontrunner Eric Adams, with plenty of absentee votes still outstanding. Adams cried foul, alleging that the new numbers somehow included 100,000 votes that weren’t accounted for in the returns on election night. Observers scoffed, including me: It seemed that he was pulling the same move Trump did last fall, trying to save face after losing by baselessly claiming fraud.

There was no fraud in NYC. (So far. That we know of.) But Adams was right, there were 100,000 extra votes in the numbers that no one could explain. Late last night, the BOE finally ‘fessed up: They’re hopeless incompetents who forgot to delete the “dummy” votes they used in their software for a test run of the city’s new ranked-choice voting system.

When I say “hopeless incompetents” I mean it. The statement above was initially published with a typo (missing the word “measures” from the final paragraph), forcing the Board to delete the original and issue a corrected version. Even when they’re admitting to a massive screw-up they can’t avoid screwing up. More from the NYT:

A comparison between first-place vote totals released on primary night and those released on Tuesday offered some insight into how the 135,000 erroneous votes were distributed. The bottom four candidates received a total of 42,000 new votes, roughly four times their actual vote total; the number of write-in ballots also skyrocketed to 17,516 from 1,336. Mr. Adams and Mr. Yang received the highest number of new votes.

It was not known, however, how the test votes were reallocated during the ranked-choice tabulations, making it impossible to determine how they affected the preliminary results that were released and then retracted.

This is the second time in 18 months that Democrats have FUBARed a major primary, the 2020 Iowa Democratic presidential contest being the other example. But when comparing election administrators for consistent decades-long incompetence, NYC stands alone. Your must-read of the day is a story from last fall, also published in the Times, about the rampant cronyism and underqualification of many employees at the city’s elections board. For generations New Yorkers have been calling for reforms, with no luck. Now they’ve arrived at a point where no one will feel fully confident that the next mayor actually did win his or her primary. From October 2020:

Already this year, the New York City Board of Elections failed to mail out many absentee ballots until the day before the primary, disenfranchising voters, and sent erroneous general election ballot packages to many other residents, spreading confusion…

New York is the only state in the country with local election boards whose staffers are chosen almost entirely by Democratic and Republican Party bosses, and the board in New York City illustrates the pitfalls. In recent years, the board has made increasingly high-profile blunders, from mistakenly purging 200,000 people from rolls ahead of the 2016 election to forcing some voters to wait in four-hour lines in 2018…

Mr. Stimson was one of more than a dozen current and former employees who told The Times that the agency has a culture where ineptitude is common and accountability is rare. Some staffers read or watch Netflix at the office, the employees said. Others regularly fail to show up for work, with no fear of discipline. Several employees said some staffers punch in and then leave to go shopping or to the gym.

New York is also infamous for taking weeks in some cases to finish tabulating votes when other states manage to do it in a matter of hours on election night. “The catalog of dysfunction and neglect seems endless,” said the Times in an editorial today, calling for a comprehensive overhaul of the Board. In fact, even if they manage to sort out the ranked-choice ballots today and provide more accurate numbers, there’ll still be reason to wonder if they’ve missed something. Not only are many absentee ballots outstanding, raising the question of why the city would bother tabulating ranked choices until those are in hand, but there may be many ballots from election day that still haven’t been counted for some reason. Dave Wasserman notes an apparent discrepancy in results from the Bronx, where Adams performed strongly:

If the updated results that are published today still show a surprisingly tight final-round race between Adams and Garcia, it may be that the uncounted ballots in the Bronx means Adams is actually leading more comfortably than we have reason to know.

It’s a catastrophe. And it’s apt to have three consequences. One, as noted, is that New Yorkers will be left to wonder if the final results are accurate. That’s bad in the abstract but possibly worse in this particular contest given that Adams has already accused Garcia of behaving in a racist way by forming an alliance with Andrew Yang against him. If the absentee ballots end up coming through for her and she overtakes him to win, it’s anyone’s guess whether Adams’s black supporters will view Garcia’s victory as legitimate or the product of BOE corruption.

Two is that it’ll cast a pall over New York’s experiment with ranked-choice voting, which is destined to scare off other jurisdictions that have been thinking of implementing it. A smart 14-year-old who’s good at Excel could tabulate RCV ballots quickly and accurately but the imbeciles at the BOE unfortunately lack that level of basic proficiency. Americans are going to look at New York’s disaster and conclude that the problem is their new system when in reality the problem is the Board. The future of RCV in America may be over.

Three is that Trump and “stop the steal” diehards will dine out on this forever as “evidence” that if the count in NYC was screwed up then there’s no reason to believe it was accurate in swing states last fall, even though states like Georgia and Arizona went through multiple recounts to validate the results. (And didn’t use a complicated RCV system.) Trump’s so excited about New York’s fiasco that he issued not one but two statements about it this morning:

The next time anyone complains about him undermining faith in U.S. elections, feel free to point them to NYC’s disaster. Can’t light a fire without fuel.