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Rankled Choice: Voting Experts Say BOE Rushed Into Releasing Preliminary Results

Board of Election workers tally ballots in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, June 29, 2021.
Board of Election workers tally ballots in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, June 29, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The city Board of Elections was warned to avoid releasing rank choice voting results piecemeal — a misstep that led to Tuesday’s ballot disaster and could undermine the new system.

“There were many who cautioned them that maybe for the first time they should opt for less,” said Gail Benjamin, who served as the chair of the city’s 2019 Charter Revision Commission, which put the ranked choice voting referendum on the ballot that year. “That they should just publish where the voting totals were after they counted in person and early voting before posting the final results.”

The board decided to release round-by-round rankings without tallying absentee ballots after politicians — some who were running for different positions — pushed for the interim figures, she added.

But the highly-anticipated release of that data Tuesday afternoon turned into a disaster after several people — including Steven Romalewski, a researcher at the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York Graduate Center — discovered vote total discrepancies compared to initial figures published after the June 22 primary.

The BOE late Tuesday night blamed the inaccurate count on the accidental inclusion of 135,000 test ballots in the tally.

“The Board apologizes for the error and has taken immediate measures to ensure the most accurate and up to date results are reported,” the BOE tweeted.

‘The BOE Is Failing’

While human error appeared to be the cause of Tuesday’s screw-up, ranked choice voting may suffer for it anyway, some advocates of the balloting system fear.

Experts laid the blame at the feet of New York’s election administrators, and warned the mistake could undermine public trust in the voting process.

Jason McDaniels, political science professor at San Francisco State University who specializes in voting behavior, lamented a lack of transparency from the board — which he sees as “paramount” for officials who run elections.

“The best way to combat rumors or partisan spin … is to be transparent. And the Board of Elections in New York City is failing that task,” he said.

Elsewhere in the country, ranked choice elections run differently.

McDaniels noted that in California, especially the Bay Area, election administrators run tabulations as they get ballots in — first with early votes, then on Election Day and beyond — without distinguishing among types of votes, as New York City is doing.

“As long as you have the votes counted, you can do a rank choice voting tally pretty quickly,” he said. “It’s just a program you run.”

One reason for that streamlined process is an election debacle that erupted during an Oakland mayoral race in 2010. A delay in tallying the votes sparked an outcry when a candidate who was initially behind took the lead after all votes were counted.

By delaying the vote tally, and not being clear about how and why they are releasing results, the NYC BOE is sowing distrust in the ranked choice voting system, said Eric Jaye, president of the consulting firm Storefront Political Media, based in San Francisco, where ranked choice voting has been used since 2004.

“By choosing to segregate the ballots in the way they’re doing, they’re increasing the possibility of changing the outcomes and changing the results in a way that will diminish confidence,” he said.

Jaye called Tuesday’s screw-up “nearly a worst-case scenario in terms of confidence in the election.”

Keep It Simple?

The leader of the BOE himself had pushed for releasing votes in a different way.

At a City Council hearing in December, BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan advocated for holding off on releasing ranked choice tabulation until all votes — including absentees — were counted.

“If we have a large number of absentee ballots — and particular campaigns are better at conducting an absentee ballot operation — and others who appeared to be in third place on election night could very well leapfrog into first place and then that transparency may become murky to the general public,” he testified.

Board of Elections Director Mike Ryan testifies before the City Council in 2018.
Board of Elections Director Mike Ryan testifies before the City Council in 2018.
John McCarten/New York City Council

But City Council member Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn), now the leading candidate for comptroller after last week’s preliminary results, contended at the hearing that Ryan’s proposed solution would be just as confusing to voters.

Ryan was arguing to release preliminary results as usual on primary night, but then go silent for weeks before releasing the ranked-choice tabulation. Lander said such a move would likely generate a similarly abrupt shift in the standings, but with even less transparency along the way.

Lander had introduced legislation that would have mandated the Board of Elections release an unofficial ranked-choice tally on primary night, which he said would more closely align with the final results than if only first-place vote results were released then.

His bill on the issue was never put up for a vote by the Council’s elections committee.

‘A Deeper Problem’

The ranked choice voting system allows New Yorkers to pick up to five candidates in order of preference, requiring run-offs until two candidates are left and one wins with at least 50% of the vote. Supporters say the method results in more — and more diverse — candidates running, less negative campaigning and candidates winning by consensus.

“Ranked choice voting strengthened our democracy, giving voters more choice and more voice this election cycle,” said Susan Lerner of the government accountability nonprofit Common Cause New York. “What we saw yesterday has nothing to do with ranked choice voting, but is a deeper problem about how we administer elections in New York.”

Common Cause co-published a poll released this week that said 75% of voters in New York supported using ranked choice voting again.

But a snafu like Tuesday’s could be difficult for the BOE to bounce back from, possibly breaking the momentum ranked choice voting was gaining across the country — even if the system itself is not at fault, McDaniels warned.

“It had a lot of momentum amongst electoral reform circles, and even amongst the public,” he said. “Something like this, in New York City, will change that conversation overnight.”

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