Editor’s Note: Arick Wierson is a six-time Emmy Award-winning television producer and former senior media adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He advises corporate and political clients on communications strategies in the US, Africa and Latin America. He tweets at @ArickWierson. Bradley Honan, CEO of Honan Strategy Group, a Democratic polling and analytics firm, has advised the campaigns of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Tony Blair and leading global companies. He tweets at @BradleyHonan. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion at CNN.
The hugely consequential New York City Democratic Primary election took place last Tuesday, June 22, and the winner is … “chaos.”
Here is a quick recap:
Back in November of 2019, New York City voted in favor of adopting a ranked choice voting (often abbreviated as RCV) system in which primary voters would be able to rank up to five candidates in order of preference.
As in most elections, the first candidate to win an absolute majority of the vote would be declared the winner, but with a twist: if no one were to reach the decisive ’50% + 1’ threshold after the initial ballots were counted, the candidate with the fewest first place preferences would be eliminated.
Voters who had the eliminated candidate as a first choice would have their second choice preferences reallocated to the remaining viable candidates, which would in turn spawn a new round of tabulations and reallocations. This rinse and repeat process would go on until some candidate managed to secure a majority of the votes cast, or, as is mathematically possible, a plurality of the votes if no one candidate were to surpass 50% when only two candidates are left standing.
Sounds confusing? Join the club.
Although the RCV system might sound promising on paper to election insiders and mathematicians – the underlying idea being that rankings give voters more opportunities to weigh into the elective process – what the world is seeing in real time is a system fraught with pitfalls and peril.
As of election night last Tuesday, former NYPD officer and current Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams led with over 31% of the vote. The progressive former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, Maya Wiley, was in second place with 22.3%, and former Sanitation Commission Kathryn Garcia was in third place with 19.5%.That was before any absentee votes had been counted or the ranked choice voting tabulation began.
Last week, most of the media coverage as well as the thinking of the political experts and pundits was that the odds were that Adams would prevail. But then the highly dysfunctional New York City Board of Elections got to work further undermining their already sordid reputation.
On Tuesday, the board released figures showing that Garcia had come from third place to within 16,000 votes of Adams, with more than 100,000 absentee ballots yet to be counted. Somehow, that count accidentally included 135,000 so-called “test ballots” that the board had been using to get the kinks out of their new software system – in other words faux test ballots got comingled with real ballots cast by actual human voters.
For a city with the size and influence of New York City, this incredibly significant screwup on the part of the Board of Elections led some veteran political observers to call this the “most botched election results” in US history.
In addition to reminding New Yorkers of the famed ineptitude of the New York City BOE where, according to a New York Times report, employees allegedly watch Netflix at the office and nepotism and political patronage runs rampant, this bungling of the primary elections has cast a shadow over the entire process. Board spokeswoman Valerie Vazquez-Diaz said in a statement that “Criticisms of boards of elections are readily made while the hard work and dedication of such boards are widely ignored.”
What happened on Tuesday taints the outcome and could provide the runners-up with legitimate reasons to doubt the veracity of the official outcome. And with such a complex and cumbersome counting process – who can blame them?
New York City is just coming off of a massively disruptive pandemic that upended the city’s economy. Rising crime and a host of other challenges loom large in the nation’s most densely populated metropolis. Now its next leader will be in an even tougher position on Day One – his or her legitimacy will undoubtedly be questioned; the next mayor’s victory may forever have an asterisk next to it. Moreover, claims that he or she will have a mandate to govern may fall on deaf ears for all but the next mayor’s most ardent supporters – even if the second and third-place victors ultimately concede in the name of party unity.
Further complicating things is the possibility that the outcome of the city’s mayoral Democratic primary will be decided in a courtroom as opposed to the ballot box – a process that will further distance voters from the entire process. Adams’ mayoral campaign filed a suit on Wednesday, saying in a statement: “Today we petitioned the court to preserve our right to a fair election process and to have a judge oversee and review ballots, if necessary.”
Elections are about transparency – the people’s voices must be heard and there must be total confidence on the part of the electorate. This isn’t small potatoes; this is in fact the foundation our democracy was built upon. And unfortunately, we have seen this movie before. Recall that a brand new software system bungled the 2020 Iowa presidential caucus, rendering the outcome irrelevant.
The Iowa case and what is taking place in overwhelmingly Democratic New York City has further cemented the idea the Democrats are incapable of running important elections and feeds into the popular GOP perception and narrative that Democrats are incompetent and should not be trusted (even though the NYC BOE is bi-partisan). Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell’s new talking point against the For The People Act will almost certainly reference the botched New York City election.
Ranked choice voting has worked successfully in smaller municipalities such as Minneapolis (population: 420,324), but the underlying math becomes infinitely more complex and prone to failure when you get into large tier one cities like New York City (population: 8.419 million). If the prime goal of an election and its process is to inspire confidence and transparency to all electors, this experiment in New York City has failed. Bigly.
It’s also a reminder that keeping our democracy strong at a time of potential foreign interference costs money – and that money upgrading local and state Boards of Elections across the country is well worth spending to protect our liberty and democracy.
On Wednesday evening the Board of Elections released an updated figure that still showed Adams’ lead narrowing. According to the new tally, Adams is at 51.1% and Garcia is at 48.9%. But if there is a silver lining, the mishap that unfolded on Tuesday will likely strike a big blow to the confusing RCV process taking off elsewhere. Given what’s at stake – voters’ confidence in our electoral process – that’s probably a good thing.