The Tuesday night fiasco, which began with the release of erroneous figures showing Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ significant Election Night lead in the Democratic mayoral primary dwindling to two percentage points after a preliminary ranked-choice tabulation, prompted New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday to call for a “complete recanvass of the BOE’s vote count and a clear explanation of what went wrong.”
Valerie Vazquez-Diaz, a spokesperson for the BOE, declined to comment on the outgoing mayor’s request. In a statement late Tuesday, the board said the botched numbers were the result of a one-off mistake that included 135,000 test vote records in the tally.
To many New York politicos familiar with the BOE’s work, the troubles that have engulfed the board over the last 24 hours stand out as the most predictable event of this year’s citywide campaign.
The body has a long and well-documented record of ineptitude that, because the city is largely Democratic and rarely under the spotlight in presidential elections, doesn’t often catch the attention of out-of-state politicians or media. But now, as voting rights come under threat across the country after months of baseless accusations by former President Donald Trump and his allies about fraud in the 2020 election, the scrutiny has been ramped up — and the early returns have not been pretty.
De Blasio, in his Wednesday statement, called for the passage of new legislation by state lawmakers that would professionalize the board, which is widely viewed as an institution racked by cronyism. But for all the hubbub, the path to reforming the city’s elections body, which has for years been the subject of frustration and anger among some lawmakers and good government activists remains unclear.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, along with Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York, a good government group, defended the ranked-choice process and put the onus for Tuesday’s mess — and the issues that have plagued the BOE for much longer — on what he described as a dysfunctional bureaucracy.
“I believe, and we all know, that right now that the Board of Elections is a patronage mill and it has to be broken up,” Williams said. “There are many concerns. We know them. How many times do we have to go through these things?”
The board, which has come under fire for an assortment of baffling decisions — like a purge of voter rolls in 2016 that affected more than 200,000 people and questions over absentee ballot counting during last year’s primaries — has been run by its deputy director for months.
Board Executive Director Michael Ryan has been on medical leave since March, leaving his deputy, Dawn Sandow, in charge, Vazquez-Diaz told CNN.
“Ms. Sandow has worked for the Board since 2005 and served as our Deputy Executive Director for over a decade,” Vazquez-Diaz said. “She served as acting Executive Director from 2010 to 2013. She has helped oversee the implementation of the new voting system, launch Election Night Reporting and Early Voting.”
Ryan’s leave was first reported by the New York Post.
Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, told CNN that the BOE’s troubles are largely the responsibility of the state government, which has the power to reform a board whose members are currently chosen, according to law, in equal numbers by Democratic and Republican leaders.
“They are not chosen for their expertise or knowledge, they’re chosen for their loyalty to the party,” Sherrill said. “Legislation to move away from that model and to have an independent, non-partisan board of elections was blocked annually by Republicans in the state legislature. Why the Democrats haven’t moved to change it (since taking over the legislature), I don’t know. It’s easier to agree that the current board has to be done away with than it is to agree on how to constitute a new one.”
Sherrill argued that the absence of more professional leadership and civil service protections for rank-and-file members of the board meant that many on the inside, even those who work hard and with the best intentions, are simply unqualified.
“The biggest question,” Sherrill said, is how “there was not a single person employed by the Board of Elections who didn’t notice that the numbers were off by were a hundred thousand and didn’t say, ‘Hey, wait with better check this before we release it?’ It’s just unbelievable that no one in charge looked at those numbers.”
The board hasn’t explained how the incorrect — and potentially misleading — data was posted online without being more thoroughly reviewed. The errors in the count were quickly spotted by at least two candidates and a number of amateur election observers.
Two of the leading candidates in the mayoral primary, according to an initial count of first-place votes released a week ago after the polls closed, made similar charges in statements late Tuesday night after the board revealed, in vague language, what had gone wrong.
“The BOE’s release of incorrect ranked choice votes is deeply troubling and requires a much more transparent and complete explanation,” former New York City Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia said. “Every ranked choice and absentee vote must be counted accurately so that all New Yorkers have faith in our democracy and our government.”
One of her rivals, civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley cited a recent example of controversy related to the board’s handling of votes.
“Last summer BOE mishandled tens of thousands of mail in ballots during the June 2020 primary. It has also been prone to complaints of patronage,” Wiley, a former counsel to de Blasio, said. “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.”
The Adams campaign, which pointed the “discrepancy” — as the BOE would later describe it — in the numbers posted on Tuesday, struck a slightly softer note after their concerns were confirmed and addressed.
“It is critical that New Yorkers are confident in their electoral system, especially as we rank votes in a citywide election for the first time,” Adams said in a statement late Tuesday night. “We appreciate the Board’s transparency and acknowledgment of their error. We look forward to the release of an accurate, updated simulation, and the timely conclusion of this critical process.”