The New York City Board of Elections’ mishandling of the vote count in the high-profile mayoral race has thrown that contest into confusion, but the city’s debacle has significant national import as well.
Confidence in elections nationwide has been on a precipitous decline over the last few years, as the integrity of U.S. election systems has come under assault from a campaign of lies and conspiracies by former President Donald Trump. Trump used his false claims to justify an attempt to try to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
New York City provided evidence of botched vote counting when election officials released results on Tuesday and then retracted them after it was pointed out that their numbers were off. The board then announced it had accidentally counted 135,000 test ballots.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams held a comfortable lead in the Democratic primary for mayor after the first round of voting. The initial wave of ranked-choice tabulations on Tuesday saw the third-place candidate, former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, leap over civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley and narrow Adams’s lead to a slim margin. But now the results are in disarray, as the candidates await another update from the Board of Elections.
Trump seized on the issue Wednesday morning, making the false claim that what happened in New York was “just like in the 2020 presidential election,” although nothing remotely similar to 135,000 miscounted ballots took place anywhere in the country in last year’s contest. He issued a second statement later in the morning, changing his claim to say that New York’s mishandling of ballots was actually “far better and more accurate” than the 2020 election.
Some Democrats, in their zeal to fight back against examples of voter suppression, have also made claims in recent years that entire elections have been stolen.
Rick Hasen, a top expert on elections, warned in his book “Election Meltdown” that four “principal dangers” to democracy can jeopardize elections. Voter suppression is one. Dirty tricks are another. Incendiary rhetoric about “stolen” or “rigged” elections is the third. Finally, he considers “pockets” of incompetence in old and creaky election systems a fourth risk.
Hasen specifically singled out New York’s election system for criticism. “If New York were a Republican state, there would be protests in the streets over voter suppression, because it runs its elections so poorly. But yet it gets a pass, because it’s a Democratic state,” he told Yahoo News last year.
Nationally, election management has become more rigorous over the last few decades. “Since the 1960s, we can say that American elections have been very clean,” Hasen said. “Part of that is the professionalization of election administration and the use of voting machines … [which] were a way of stopping literal ballot-box stuffing and the counting of ballots by hand that allowed for more chicanery.”
But there are regional differences related to history. Elections tend to be more modernized, efficient, transparent and accurate in Western states, Hasen said, while there are still “pockets” of incompetence in some Southern states that have a history of racist voter suppression and also in some Northeastern states that for decades were dominated by machine politics and party bosses who used government jobs to dispense favors.
“There’s a history of terrible election administration in Detroit,” Hasen said. “There’s a history of bad election administration in Philadelphia.”
In 2020, as many states were updating their election laws to open up access to voting by mail and early voting during the COVID-19 pandemic, the contrast between Western states and those in the South and Northeast became much clearer. States like Colorado, Utah, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii already ran elections entirely by mail, and had established clear standards for how to conduct a clean, modern election that prioritized both making it easy for voters to cast ballots and making sure the vote was counted accurately and fairly.
States in the Northeast were as bad as many Southern states in their lack of access to early voting and voting by mail. New York had never allowed no-excuse voting by mail until the pandemic.
The Gotham Gazette, a New York news site run by a government watchdog organization, said the New York City Board of Elections is “a creature of state law with political appointees and patronage hires known for dysfunction and ineptitude in its core mission of running processes essential to local democracy.”
Wiley, the progressive who still hopes to topple Adams’s lead in the New York mayoral race, said the mishandling of the election was “the result of generations of failures that have gone unaddressed.” She, too, said the New York board has a culture of “patronage.”
But Hasen’s comment points to another major impact of the New York City electoral embarrassment. It makes it much harder for Democrats to blame all examples of confusion in election management on intentional voter suppression in Republican states.
In some cases, voter suppression may be hiding behind a bureaucratic veneer. Sometimes it’s just plain incompetence.
There are some good reasons for Democrats to fear voter suppression. They and Republicans have believed for the last 20 years that the country’s growing diversity means that the more people who vote, the more Democrats will get elected, even though it’s become clearer in the last few years that this is not necessarily true.
Claims of voter suppression that are not backed up by clear evidence, however, but rather by assumption, also undermine confidence in elections. Hasen singled out Democrat Stacey Abrams for the claims she and her campaign made about GOP Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s handling of the 2018 election, which he won while overseeing the contest as secretary of state. Hasen did not spare Kemp from critique either, calling him one of the most incompetent election officials in the country.
“I’m not trying to equalize the blame between Brian Kemp, who is awful, and Stacey Abrams, who I think has done a lot of great things for voting rights. My specific criticism of Stacey Abrams related to the question of how you talk about an election where the state has done some things that look like they’re aimed at suppressing the vote, but there’s no good evidence that these suppressive measures actually affected the election outcome,” Hasen said in an interview last year. “When you start talking about elections as being stolen or rigged … it’s kind of a very strong charge to make. If you make it without evidence, I think people start to lose confidence in the process for no good reason.”
Abrams told Yahoo News in 2019 that she did “struggle” with how to respond to the 2018 election, given her belief in democratic institutions. “Yes, there has to be finality in an election, and under the laws of Georgia, I could not reasonably leverage the laws to change the outcome, and I didn’t think I should,” she said.
New York’s election mishap is also a blow to the movement for ranked-choice voting, a reform to elections that has been gaining momentum nationally over the last few years. Advocates say its chief appeal is that it will produce more moderate winners of elections, because it requires that a candidate win a majority instead of a 30 to 40 percent plurality.
Alaska and Maine are the two states that have begun to use ranked-choice voting for statewide elections. Many cities and municipalities are beginning to implement it as well.
But if Adams loses once all the votes are counted, he could become a vocal critic of the ranked-choice system, which he has opposed and was already complaining about in the final days of the campaign.
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