Though liberal New Yorkers like to imagine the horrors of voter suppression and hyper-politicized election administration are relegated to Republican-dominated states, the failures of democracy can be found far closer to home. In New York, a patronage-ridden Board of Elections has been frustrating voters for years, making the city and the state a national embarrassment.
This time, a lot of people are paying attention: on Tuesday night, the city-run BOE revealed that it had accidentally included 135,000 “test” ballots in its ranked-choice voting simulation, invalidating preliminary results released to the public. The simulation, the first of its kind performed on this scale—a New York mayoral election has never used ranked-choice voting (RCV) before—will need to be redone today. Right now, we think Eric Adams and Kathryn Garcia are very close, separated by only two percentage points. We won’t have real answers until absentee ballots, which must be counted after election day, are included in another, final tabulation next week.
In the meantime, the BOE’s failure is already undermining faith in RCV. No normal, competent elections administrator would have released a simulation with dummy ballots. This has nothing to do with RCV and everything to do with a problem unique to New York.
It is easy, at this point, to recall the many high-profile BOE failures. In 2016, the board erroneously purged as many as 120,000 active voters from the voter rolls in a misguided attempt to remove dead voters. Supporters of Bernie Sanders cried foul, believing the Brooklyn Democratic Party, which was supporting Hillary Clinton, was behind the effort. In 2018, ballot scanners failed and poll workers struggled with inordinately long lines, leading to some voters walking away from the polls altogether. In 2020, the BOE failed to mail out many absentee ballots until the day before the primary and erroneously sent general election ballots to many other residents.
Why does this keep happening? No one who works at the BOE needs to pass a civil service exam or meet any particular professional requirements. Ten commissioners—one Republican, one Democrat per borough—govern the BOE and select its executive director. Just about all the staffers who work under them are tied to the local Republican and Democratic parties. Office staffers are hired through commissioner recommendations and connections to politicians, as are poll workers. There is virtually no way to land a job at the BOE without a political connection of some kind.
If merely friendship with a Democratic apparatchik, and not competence, is the barometer, failure is the only logical result. The system dates back many decades to when Democratic and Republican machines controlled much of government. While reforms weakened the influence of these political organizations elsewhere, the BOE was left frozen in amber. No governor or state legislator wanted to change the status quo. It was an easy place to get buddies hired, after all.
Though the BOE is overseeing a city mayoral election, it is vital to remember the city’s BOE, like all the boards across the state, is a state agency. This means the mayor and the city council, beyond appointing commissioners, cannot by law alter this patronage system. Overhauls of the BOE must be accomplished in the state legislature, where constitutional amendments can begin to do the work of ending the Republican-Democratic control of election administration.
Governor Andrew Cuomo, as the most powerful politician in the state, can propose reforms and put his political muscle behind them. He has refused to because he does not really care. The BOE should be a nonpartisan administrator staffed with qualified civil servants. Cuomo has no stated interest in making this a reality.
Overhauling the BOE matters because their incompetence does the actual work of voter suppression. What’s more, that incompetence may undercut RCV before it is regularly implemented in New York. RCV, which is used in cities across America, works because it allows a greater number of people, and not a small plurality, to elect a candidate. Adams, who has a history of making incendiary statements, is a fierce critic of RCV and his surrogates are arguing, against all evidence, it will disenfranchise nonwhite voters. When Garcia formed an alliance with Andrew Yang, another top candidate, Adams likened it to Jim Crow.
Adams might lose this election to Garcia, a white woman, because he is a polarizing candidate with a history of scandal; another Black candidate in his place could have won the primary more easily. His identity has nothing to do with it. But the more the BOE mismanages the election, the more Adams and his surrogates can cast doubt on the outcome. As his election night lead evaporates, he is standing ready, Trump-like, to challenge the results of this election. For New York City—like for America—this can be a very dangerous thing. Large swaths of voters could very well follow the lead of people like Adams, who does have real credibility, while the BOE has close to none. We could be in for a deeply challenging and divisive summer.