‘A relic from the past': New York’s troubled election agency ignites fury

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NEW YORK — Eric Adams and Kathryn Garcia are suing. Donald Trump is pushing conspiracy theories. And the final results in New York’s mayoral primary may not be known for weeks or possibly months.

The botched count of the city’s ranked-choice election results Tuesday sparked a flood of criticism and calls for reform of New York’s notorious Board of Elections — but as candidate Maya Wiley said Tuesday night, “It is impossible to be surprised.”

Like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and July 4 on Coney Island, bungled votes and the uproar that follows have become a tradition in New York where elections have long been run by a board controlled by political party machines and staffed through patronage.

The Board of Elections was forced to retract a set of mayoral primary results it published on Tuesday, admitting that staffers had accidentally included 135,000 test ballots in the numbers. The election is the first citywide contest conducted under a new system of ranked-choice voting.

“It’s broken. It’s arcane,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said of the board on Wednesday. “This is a partisan board with no accountability… They’re a relic from the past.”

The cycle of election day fumbles — followed by recriminations, hearings and investigations — has played out many times before. But New York elected officials have never taken action to overhaul the board, whose structure is dictated by state law.

In fact, de Blasio’s comments echoed those he made in October, when the elections board declined city funding to expand early voting and sites saw long lines ahead of the presidential election.

"This is the moment for change and reform. It's clearly the moment. People are angry. And they want to be involved and they're going to want to be involved next year so we gotta make it better before next year's elections,” he said at the time. “I'm going to reach out to the governor and offer a proposal for how to change things.”

He cited a bill in the state Legislature he’s backing that could “professionalize” the board’s operations, but said changing the structure of the board would require a constitutional amendment.

The board is controlled by ten commissioners, one Democrat and one Republican from each of the five boroughs’ political parties. Those commissioners in turn have authority over the board’s operations — and its hiring, with jobs at every level traditionally divvied up between the local parties.

It’s one of the last vestiges of a party machine system that dates back to Tammany Hall — with county parties having lost much of their influence over who wins local elections, but having retained control over the administration of the elections themselves.

The City Council has the authority to approve BOE commissioners, but it has not used that power to veto problematic picks — instead rubber stamping nominations by the county parties, as it did last fall with two appointees whose main qualifications were their political connections.

De Blasio is pushing two measures in the state legislature: a bill that would give the board’s executive director authority over day-to-day operations, and a state constitutional amendment that would terminate the partisan structure of the board.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) vowed hearings soon.

"The situation in New York City is a national embarrassment and must be dealt with promptly and properly,” she said Wednesday in a statement. “In the coming weeks, the Senate will be holding hearings on this situation and will seek to pass reform legislation as a result at the earliest opportunity.”

The bill's sponsor, state Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) said, "The number of screw-ups at every level of management that must have gone into the release of those incorrect numbers is mind boggling," and demanded immediate reform.

Representatives for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) and Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not respond to questions about their positions on the legislation.

But the sense of déjà vu was palpable.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said he hoped the “wildly, wildly incompetent error” would be enough of a humiliation to finally spur reform.

“We’ve seen some pretty bad errors before. This one seems to be a national embarrassment,” he said.

Last year, the BOE failed to send out absentee ballots in time, forcing many New Yorkers who had requested them to vote in person despite the Covid-19 pandemic or sacrifice their right to vote. The general election saw another bungle: The board mailed out some 100,000 ballots with incorrect return envelopes to voters in Brooklyn, feeding conspiracy theories by then-President Donald Trump.

Trump, who has been pushing for audits of 2020 election results based on false claims of election fraud, took the opportunity Wednesday to tee off on his hometown’s elections administrators.

“Based on what has happened, nobody will ever know who really won,” the former president said in a statement. “Watch the mess you are about to see in New York City, it will go on forever. They should close the books and do it all over again, the old-fashioned way, when we had results that were accurate and meaningful.”

The board is rife with patronage and outright nepotism: A probe by the Department of Investigation in 2013 found at least 69 BOE employees had a relative also working at the board, including two of the commissioners. That investigation came when DOI created a special unit to scrutinize the board, after finding the agency wasted millions of dollars by hiring thousands of unnecessary poll workers for an off-year election.

Ahead of the 2016 presidential primary, BOE wrongly purged over 200,000 voters from the rolls. That contest led to another round of investigations, including one by the state attorney general.

Reports of chaos at the polls — closed polling sites, broken machines, long lines and more — marred one election after another, including the 2010 state primary where new voting machines were adopted, which led to the firing of the board’s executive director; the 2012 presidential general election; and the 2018 general election for governor, where soggy ballots on a rainy day were blamed for causing jams.

De Blasio offered the board $20 million in exchange for agreeing to a series of reforms, including improving poll worker training and salaries and bringing in an outside consultant to review its operations. BOE turned the money down.

While the bungling is nothing new, the latest flub marred the city’s first attempt to choose a mayor through a new ranked-choice voting system. Critics of ranked-choice voting seized on the trouble to criticize the system, but its defenders said human error and not ranked-choice was to blame.

Ranked-choice allows voters to select up to five candidates, in order of preference. If no one gets a majority, the last-place candidate is eliminated and their votes assigned to the voter’s second choice, a process that continues until a candidate tops 50 percent.

Tuesday’s results, since retracted, were a tabulation of those elimination rounds, though they were never intended to be final because more than 124,000 absentee ballots still have to be counted. They showed front-runner Eric Adams’ lead in the Democratic primary narrowing substantially. New results released Wednesday showed roughly the same outcome.

“Our members warned the public for months that the City was ill-prepared to execute elections under the new Ranked-Choice Voting system, and the concerns they raised continue to be borne out by the facts,” the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus said in a statement. The caucus pushed for legislation that would put ranked- choice voting, approved by public referendum in 2019, up for another referendum that could repeal it.

Adams’ campaign filed a preemptive lawsuit Wednesday in Brooklyn, asking for the opportunity to have a judge oversee the results. “Today we petitioned the court to preserve our right to a fair election process and to have a judge oversee and review ballots, if necessary,” the campaign said in a statement. “We are notifying the other campaigns of our lawsuit through personal service, as required by law, because they are interested parties. We invite the other campaigns to join us and petition the court as we all seek a clear and trusted conclusion to this election.”

Garcia's campaign filed a similar suit on Wednesday as well.

Susan Lerner, head of the good government group Common Cause, which backs ranked-choice voting, said the system’s opponents “are misguided, and they are misleading the public.”

“Many of them are in positions of power to actually effect change at the Board of Elections and reform the structure,” she said. “Instead they deflect, by pounding away at RCV rather than addressing the problems they’ve been ignoring and benefiting from.”

De Blasio did manage to find a silver lining: The city's primary was moved up to June this year instead of the fall, which leaves a lot more lead time ahead of the general election to settle on a Democratic nominee.

"If this were a September primary, we'd all be screwed right now," he said.

Joe Anuta and Sally Goldenberg contributed to this report.

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