Weeks before city Board of Elections officials revealed they’d bungled the vote count in the 2021 primary Tuesday, an elections consultant had tried a few times to offer help with the tabulation software his group had provided to BOE.
Chris Hughes, policy director of Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, said he received no response, which led him to believe that this was the way BOE functioned — preferring to handle its elections without advice from outsiders.
“From what I’ve heard, it’s not built to work well with others,” Hughes said, adding, “If they’d just had another set of eyes on these results, we could have avoided putting this out.”
This reluctance to collaborate with outside experts and the ignoring of recommendations for reform appears to be built into the troubled agency’s DNA, an examination by THE CITY of the board’s history found.
When the city Department of Investigation made 43 recommendations for reform in 2013, for instance, BOE officials simply disregarded almost all of them — forging ahead as if they’d never actually read the 55-page report DOI assembled detailing nepotism, incompetence and political patronage.
Diane Struzzi, a DOI spokesperson, noted that the board accepted only 12 of 43 suggestions — “remaining largely silent on broader issues we raised in our 2013 report.”
The mistake that occurred Tuesday involved the test ballots the BOE employed to check the functionality of the tabulation system used to sort ranked choice voting results from in-person early and Primary Day voting.
According to the few details BOE officials have so far released about what actually happened, staff neglected to remove 135,000 test ballots from the system when they began eliminating low-performing candidates — a hallmark of ranked choice voting.
As a result, test ballots got mixed in with real ballots, inflating the totals and invalidating the count. By Wednesday, BOE officials said they’d removed all the test ballots and sorted what they said was only actual in-person votes.
In a terse tweet, BOE President Frederic Umane, a Republican, and Secretary Miguelina Camilo, a Democrat, blamed “a human error that could have been avoided.”
This “discrepancy” wreaked 24 hours of havoc on the sanity of voters and candidates, especially the top three mayoral candidates: Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, and Maya Wiley, former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio.
And it created broader waves of anxiety about the integrity of the agency doing the counting. The board still has to count another 125,000 absentee votes for the Democratic primary, and several candidates — including Adams and Garcia — have already filed pre-emptive lawsuits against the board.
In his lawsuit, Adams, who’d raised questions about Tuesday’s results before BOE officials admitted their mistake, requested judicial intervention and a manual hand-count of paper ballots.
This latest mess follows years of calls for specific reforms. Mayors from Rudy Giuliani to Michael Bloomberg to de Blasio have all demanded change. Nearly all of those calls have gone unheeded.
DOI’s December 2013 report is a case in point.
The report catalogued in excruciating detail “systemic problems with accountability, transparency and dysfunction at the BOE.” That included rampant nepotism and poor oversight of voter rolls that allowed DOI investigators to pose as ineligible voters — including dead people — and successfully vote.
Confronted with DOI’s findings, the elections board commissioners — all chosen by the two major political parties and appointed by the City Council — not only ignored 31 of the report’s 43 recommendations, but even took to “questioning DOI’s authority over it,” Struzzi said.
Gone unimplemented were DOI’s specific suggestions, including enforcing an anti-nepotism policy, carefully checking rolls for ineligible voters and stopping the practice of hiring based on the recommendation of county political committees.
‘Democracy Based on Trust’
In the last several weeks, Hughes said he encountered a similar reluctance to listen to outside advice.
“Once we got through the state testing and certification process, [BOE] took the software and ran with it,” he said. “From what I’ve heard, the board only lets their staffers work with people they want them to work with.”
Hughes credits BOE officials for admitting that they’d made a mistake, but the board has yet to detail exactly what happened. That lack of transparency is part of a longstanding pattern, said City Councilmember Ben Kallos (D-Manhattan,) who has investigated BOE in his former role as chair of the Government Operations Committee.
“Unless they’re willing to do things publicly and transparently, it’s hard to trust it,” he said. “And democracy is based on trust. We just came out of an election where the president of the United States questioned the validity of the election with no justification. In this case, we had a candidate [Adams] question the results — and he was right.”