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Officials slam Board of Elections after primary blunder

July 1, 2021 Marina Villenueve, Associated Press, and Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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On Wednesday, officials from Brooklyn and elsewhere in the metro area blasted the city Board of Elections after a failure to clear old data from a computer system led to inaccurate vote tallies in the closely-watched and much-anticipated Democratic mayoral primary.

Revised vote counts in New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary still showed Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams maintaining a thin lead, a day after a first attempt to report results went disastrously wrong.

Corrected numbers released Wednesday showed Adams, a former police captain and state senator, leading former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia by 14,755 votes. Civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley was practically tied with Garcia, falling just 347 votes behind in the ranked choice analysis.

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Many observers felt this showed that the Board was not really up to the job of administering the ranked-choice voting process, which allows people to rank up to five candidates in order of preference. Still, few attacked ranked-choice voting per se.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who is still ahead in the race, said that his campaign has “petitioned the court to preserve our right to a fair election process and to have a judge oversee and review ballots, if necessary. We are notifying the other campaigns of our lawsuit through personal service, as required by law, because they are interested parties.”

Rodneyse Bichotte Hermalyn, chair of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, said, “This week the people of New York were, again, let down by a system that has left voters doubting the merit of their votes. The Board of Elections was unprepared to execute a ranked-choice voting system of this scale.” 

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, originally a councilmember representing a Brooklyn district, said, “Like many New Yorkers, I was and am extremely frustrated by the tabulation and reporting errors that the Board of Elections made in announcing their preliminary results yesterday. It is the latest in a long-running series of issues and inadequacies with the Board, which is why my office has previously proposed reforms which I hope will now gain traction.” 

Mayor Bill de Blasio, also a former councilmember from Brooklyn, said, “Yet again, the fundamental structural flaws of the Board of Elections are on display. There must be an immediate, complete recanvass of the BOE’s vote count and a clear explanation of what went wrong.”

Voting in New York City’s mayoral primary ended June 22. Tuesday was supposed to be the first time that officials released results based on the ranked-choice voting system, which allows people to rank up to five candidates in order of preference.

Under the system, ballot data is fed into a computer program, which tallies the votes and shows where the candidates stand.

Somehow, though, election officials had failed to clear the computer of 135,000 test ballots that had been loaded in earlier to make sure the system worked.

When the votes were tabulated, those 135,000 ballots were mixed in with more than 800,000 real ones, corrupting the results.

The board realized the error and took down the data, but not for several hours. In the meantime, the news media had been reporting on the flawed numbers, which appeared to show Brooklyn Borough President Adams losing much of his lead in the race.

This has little to do with ranked-choice voting, except that it was a new system with which the city has had little experience in reporting results.

Under the system, a candidate who is the first choice of a majority of voters is declared the winner.

But if there’s no majority, voters’ rankings of other candidates are taken into account. Vote tallying takes place in rounds. In each round, the candidate in last place is eliminated. Ballots cast for that person are then redistributed to the surviving candidates, based on voter rankings.

The process repeats until only two candidates are left.

If election officials had reset the counting system properly before loading in the ballot data, the ranked-choice analysis performed Tuesday should theoretically have worked just fine.

The blunder should not have affected the final tally now that corrupted data has been erased from the system.

New Yorkers are still far off from knowing the final result in the Democratic primary because at least 125,000 absentee ballots have yet to be included in the city’s vote count.

The process of counting votes sent by mail only began this week.

It remains to be seen whether the board’s error itself will make the public less likely to trust final results.

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