Politics & Policy

The Rangel Bungle

Representative Charlie Rangel (D., N.Y.)
A botched New York primary exemplifies how many American elections are amateurishly run.

The near-meltdown in the vote count for the New York Democratic primary featuring scandal-tarred congressman Charlie Rangel should serve as a warning siren about what could happen in this November’s national election. It’s not just voter fraud we have to worry about. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the fraud ends and the incompetence begins.

The Rangel fiasco reminds us that the United States has, as Walter Dean Burnham, the nation’s leading political scientist, put it, “the developed world’s sloppiest election systems.” And New York City is no unsophisticated backwater.

The troubles in the Rangel race began on Election Night, June 26. The voting-machine totals put down on paper had the incumbent beating his challenger, state senator Adriano Espaillat, by a comfortable 2,300 votes in a Harlem district that is now equally divided between black and Hispanic populations.

But after the voting-machine totals were sent to a computer, the Rangel lead melted to 802 votes; a partially completed recount has boosted his lead to 945 votes. The New York City Board of Elections claimed the errors were the fault of New York police officers who had laboriously entered the election totals from paper records into a computer system. A board spokeswoman claims the men in blue entered zeroes for one-seventh of the precincts where votes were cast.

#ad#The NYPD fires back that the zeroes were entered because the canvassing sheets filled out by poll workers were illegible or had not listed a final total for each sheet. Indeed, reporters have inspected several sheets where the results had been erased, or deciphering the writing was at best guesswork.

“I thought that stuff happened in Florida or Mississippi somewhere, but not here in New York State,” Mayor Mike Bloomberg lashed out in anger this week. “The Board of Elections is broken. We should just shut it down and build a new system that works for all New Yorkers and that is transparent for all.” He said its officials were incompetent and the system they ran “about as corruptible as system as anybody could conceivably design.”

Not surprisingly, Espaillat is even more enraged. He has gone before a judge demanding a new election, given the irregularities he has found. He conceded defeat on Election Night only to see his 10-percentage-point loss shrink to almost nothing in the next day or so. Espaillat calls the election “a phantom procedure” and doesn’t think everything was bumbling or an accident. He notes that the Board of Elections ordered many bilingual poll workers to man precincts with few Hispanics on voting day. He said some of his own relatives weren’t even listed as registered voters.

But incompetence is always a plausible defense for the patronage-clogged New York board’s officials. In 2010, they threw out over 40 percent of the votes cast in two Bronx precincts. The same year, an absentee ballot the board mailed to voters had incorrect instructions on how voters should fill it out. Such incidents led to the executive director of the board’s being fired. The position has been vacant for the last two years.

It’s been over a decade since the Bush-Gore recount in Florida was supposed to spur a wholesale modernization of our election systems. Clearly, reforms in some places — starting with New York — have been stillborn.

The incompetence crosses party lines. Last year, Wisconsin voters were infuriated after a nationally watched state-supreme-court election that could have determined the fate of Governor Scott Walker’s reforms.

The morning after Election Day, liberal challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg declared victory by a margin of some 200 votes. But the next day Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus announced that she had excluded some 14,000 votes from the city of Brookfield when she gave her final tally to the Associated Press on election night. The revised tally put conservative incumbent David Prosser more than 7,000 votes ahead of Kloppenburg, and he was declared the winner.

Nickolaus’s error could have been easily avoided through transparency. She had ended the prior clerk’s practice of reporting election results for individual cities because it was “not her responsibility” and she didn’t “have the staff to enter all the data” — an absurd statement given that many smaller counties post such data on their websites. Many states, such as Kentucky, offer user-friendly websites to track returns statewide.

If we don’t view this month’s mess as a wake-up call, we’ll have only ourselves to blame if next year’s presidential election turns into a rerun of Florida 2000. Americans know it could happen: The Brookings Institution reports that in a 2004 poll of 37 nations, Americans were more likely than citizens of any country save Russia to say that their elections are “very dishonest.”

Mexico — which just last week carried off a national election with a universal photo-ID requirement for voting — spends roughly 10 times more per capita on elections than the U.S. and has virtually eliminated charges of voter fraud or incompetence. We can vastly improve our system with much smaller investments.

In 2005, a bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform, headed by former president Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state James Baker, issued 87 recommendations on how to clean up our system. Sadly, most have been ignored or implemented only haltingly.

Fewer than half of states exchange updates on voter registration with other states, and many never sufficiently check the accuracy of registration information. Most registration lists are inadequately transparent — they aren’t easily searchable and are clogged with ineligible or duplicate voters. Fewer than half the states require some form of post-election audit or manual recount.

Robert Pastor, the former executive director of the Carter-Baker commission, says the irony is that while Americans frequently demand observers and best practices in the elections of other countries, we are often blind to the need to scrutinize our own elections. The meltdowns we see in New York and Wisconsin and other places remind us that we still have a little time to address problems with our own voting procedures before key elections wind up in court this November just like the Rangel one has.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.

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