New Yorkers have endured the incompetence of the city’s Board of Elections for so long that complaints on the subject blend into the background noise of life in a megalopolis, alongside gripes about overstuffed subway cars and putrid piles of sidewalk trash.
This page called the board “at best a semi‐functioning anachronism” — and that was 50 years ago.
Nary an election passes without another reminder of how much contempt the agency has for the city’s vast, diverse electorate. Accidentally purged voter rolls, misaddressed absentee ballots, intolerably long lines. The catalog of dysfunction and neglect seems endless.
Yet somehow the board found a new way to humiliate itself and the city, one week after 800,000 New Yorkers went to the polls to cast ballots in the most consequential mayoral primaries in a generation. Or was it 940,000 New Yorkers? Good question. For several bewildering hours on Tuesday, no one had an answer.
The first number, which the board reported shortly after polls closed on June 22, reflected the first-place votes cast in person during early voting and on Election Day, and showed Eric Adams with a commanding lead in the Democratic primary. The second number included the full ranked-choice tallies of those same ballots and, to the shock of the political establishment, appeared to show Kathryn Garcia vaulting from third place into a near tie with Mr. Adams. But political observers across the city soon flagged the vote-total discrepancy. So did Mr. Adams, who rightly demanded an explanation for the “irregularities.”
By late afternoon, the board had removed the new results from its website. A few hours later, the explanation came out, and it was a doozy, even by the board’s degraded standards: 135,000 “votes” included in Tuesday’s tally were in fact not real votes, but part of a test run that the board had failed to clear from a computer before posting the numbers to the public.
In a tweet, the board pleaded with the public and the candidates for patience. No, patience is something you earn through transparency and competence, two qualities the New York City elections board does not possess. A particularly toxic, century-old vestige of the city’s patronage system, it is run by friends and relatives of political power brokers from both parties, who seem to care for nothing as much as their own incumbency. The board’s 10 commissioners, one Democrat and one Republican from each borough, get their paychecks despite not being trained in election administration — or, it appears, any other civic-minded pursuit.
The board’s commissioners fight sensible efforts to make voting more accessible and reject money — most recently, $20 million from Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2016 — that could help make the operation more competent.
City investigations have for decades documented the board’s tribulations in depressingly repetitive language: “inefficiency, laxity and waste”; “illegalities, misconduct, and antiquated operations.” The board’s own staff — who try to do their job with professionalism and honesty — have called it “chronically dysfunctional” and an “insane asylum.”
Last fall, as the country geared up for a presidential election amid a pandemic, the city’s comptroller, Scott Stringer, who is now on the mayoral ballot, said of the board, “We shouldn’t have to hold our breath because of their gross incompetence.” Still the board manages to take our breath away.
This latest blunder comes at an especially bad time, in the middle of the city’s first mayoral election to use ranked-choice voting, a smart electoral innovation that many other cities have adopted without major trouble.
Some have jumped to blame the new voting method for Tuesday’s mess, but the real culprit is the same old one: a decrepit, self-dealing political machine that refuses to release its stranglehold on the city’s elections.
The fiasco is all the worse given the fragile state of American democracy in the wake of the Trump presidency. The need for public confidence in election procedures has never been higher. A functioning board would have eased voters’ concerns about the new system; this one exacerbated them, and the damage could take years to repair.
Last fall, after the board sent out mislabeled and misaddressed ballots, Donald Trump tweeted, “Big Fraud, Unfixable!” He was partly right. The board can’t be fixed; it can only be dismantled and rebuilt as the professional, nonpartisan agency that New Yorkers deserve.
This means amending the state Constitution, which should happen as soon as possible. Lawmakers in search of a new model can take a cue from Los Angeles, where elections are run by trained officials who seemingly care about getting things right and serving the citizens who pay their salaries.
If this latest disaster is to have any silver lining, it will be as the catalyst for a comprehensive reform that should have happened decades ago.
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