‘A relic from the past': New York’s troubled election agency ignites fury

Eric Adams’ campaign filed a preemptive lawsuit in Brooklyn on Wednesday asking for the option to have a judge oversee the results. | Spencer Platt / Getty Images

NEW YORK – Eric Adams and Kathryn Garcia are suing. Donald Trump promotes conspiracy theories. And the final results of the New York mayoral election may not be known for weeks or months.

The botched count of the city’s election results on Tuesday sparked a flurry of criticism and calls for reform of the infamous New York Electoral Committee – but as candidate Maya Wiley said Tuesday night, “It’s impossible to be surprised.”

As with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and July 4th at Coney Island, false votes and the ensuing turmoil have become a tradition in New York, where elections have long been led by a board of directors controlled by political party machines and patronized.

The electoral board was forced to withdraw a series of mayoral primary results it released Tuesday, admitting employees inadvertently added 135,000 test votes to the numbers. The election is the first city-wide competition to be carried out according to a new system of ranking voting.

“It’s broken. It’s obscure,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said of the board on Wednesday. “This is a non-partisan body with no accountability … You are a relic from the past.”

The election day fumble cycle – followed by allegations, hearings, and investigations – has played out many times. But New York elected officials have never taken action to revise the board, the structure of which is dictated by state law.

In fact, de Blasio’s comments mirrored those he’d made in October when the electoral committee turned down the city’s funding to expand early voting and the websites saw long lines before the presidential election.

“This is the moment for change and reform. It is clearly the moment. People are angry. And they want to join in and they will want to join in next year, so we have to do better before next year’s elections,” he said back then. “I’ll contact the governor and make a suggestion on how things can be changed.”

He cited a bill from the state legislature that he endorsed and that could “professionalize” the work of the board, but said that changing the structure of the board would require a constitutional amendment.

The board is controlled by ten commissioners, one Democrat and one Republican from each of the political parties in the five boroughs. These commissioners, in turn, have authority over the affairs of the board of directors – and its attitudes, with jobs at all levels traditionally shared between the local parties.

It is one of the last remnants of a party machine system that dates back to Tammany Hall – with county parties having lost much of their influence over who wins the local elections but retained control over the administration of the elections themselves.

The city council has the power to approve BOE commissioners, but it hasn’t used that power to veto problematic picks – instead, it has stamped nominations from the county parties, as it did last fall with two harvests, theirs most important qualifications were their political connections.

De Blasio is pushing for two measures in the state parliament: a bill that would give the authority of the executive director of the board for day-to-day operations and a state constitutional amendment that would end the partisan structure of the board.

Senate majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins ​​(D-Yonkers) announced hearings would be soon.

“The situation in New York City is a national embarrassment and needs to be addressed promptly and appropriately,” she said in a statement on Wednesday. “In the coming weeks the Senate will hold hearings on this situation and try to pass reform laws.” as a result at the earliest possible point in time. ”

Bill sponsor, State Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), said, “The number of mistakes at all levels of management that must have gone into posting these false numbers is mind-boggling,” and called for immediate reform.

Representatives from Speaker of Parliament Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) and Governor Andrew Cuomo did not respond to questions about their positions on the legislation.

But the feeling of déjà vu was palpable.

Public attorney Jumaane Williams said he hoped the “wild, wildly incompetent mistake” would be enough humiliation to finally drive reform.

“We have seen some pretty bad mistakes. This seems like a national embarrassment, ”he said.

In the past year, the BOE failed to send postal ballot papers in a timely manner, forcing many New Yorkers who had asked them to vote in person or to sacrifice their right to vote despite the Covid-19 pandemic. There was another mistake in the general election: The board of directors sent around 100,000 ballot papers with false return envelopes to voters in Brooklyn, fueling the conspiracy theories of then President Donald Trump.

Trump, who has urged audits of 2020 election results on false claims of election fraud, took the opportunity on Wednesday to cut off his hometown election administrators.

“After what happened, no one will ever know who really won,” the former president said in a statement. “Watch the chaos you will see in New York City, it will last forever. They should close the books and do it all over again, the old-fashioned way, when we got accurate and meaningful results. ”

The board is full of patronage and open nepotism: A. Investigation by the Department of Investigation In 2013, it was found that at least 69 BOE employees had a relative who also worked on the board, including two of the commissioners. That investigation came when the DOI set up a task force to investigate the board of directors after it was discovered that the agency wasted millions of dollars in hiring thousands of unnecessary election workers for an off-year election.

Before the 2016 presidential primaries, BOE rinsed incorrectly over 200,000 voters from the lists. This competition led to another round of investigations, including one from the Attorney General.

Reports of election chaos – closed polling stations, broken machines, long lines and more – tarnished election after election, including this one 2010 state primary school where new voting machines were introduced, the led to the shooting of the chairman of the board; the 2012 presidential election; and the Bundestag election 2018 for governor where wet ballots on a rainy day were accused of causing traffic jams.

De Blasio offered the board $ 20 million in exchange for agreeing to a number of reforms, including improving the training and salaries of election workers and using an outside consultant to review operations. BOE refused the money.

The botch is nothing new, but the recent flub has tarnished the city’s first attempt to elect a mayor through a new ranked electoral system. Ranking choice voting critics went out of their way to criticize the system, but its defenders said it was human error and not ranking choice to blame.

In the ranked election, voters can choose up to five candidates in the order of their preference. If no one gets a majority, the last-placed candidate is eliminated and their votes assigned to the elector’s second choice, a process that continues until a candidate reaches the 50 percent mark.

Tuesday’s results, which were withdrawn, were a table of those elimination rounds, although they should never be final as there are still more than 124,000 absentee votes to be counted. They showed that front runner Eric Adams’ lead in the Democratic primary has declined significantly. New results released on Wednesday showed roughly the same result.

“Our members have warned the public for months that the city is ill-prepared to hold elections under the new ranked voting system, and the concerns they have raised continue to be borne out by the facts,” said the Black, Latino and Asian. City Council’s Caucus said in a statement. The caucus pushed for a bill putting the ranked voting, approved by public referendum in 2019, into another referendum that could overturn it.

Adams’ campaign filed a preemptive lawsuit in Brooklyn on Wednesday asking for the option to have a judge oversee the results. “Today we asked the court to uphold our right to a fair election process and, if necessary, to have a judge oversee and review the ballot papers,” the campaign said in a statement. “We are informing the other campaigns of our lawsuit through personal service, as required by law, as they are interested parties. We invite the other campaigns to join us and petition the court as we all seek a clear and trustworthy conclusion to this election. “

Garcia’s campaign also filed a similar lawsuit on Wednesday.

Susan Lerner, leader of the good government group Common Cause, which supports the ranking poll, said opponents of the system were “misguided and misleading the public”.

“Many of them are in positions of power to actually bring about changes in the electoral board and reform the structure,” she said. “Instead, they distract by pounding on RCV rather than tackling the issues they ignored and benefited from.”

De Blasio has managed to find a silver lining: the city’s primary elections have been postponed to June this year instead of autumn, leaving much more lead time before the general election to agree on a Democratic candidate.

“If this were a September area code, we’d all be screwed now,” he said.

Joe Anuta and Sally Goldenberg contributed to this report.

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