If you don’t remember Election Day of 2019 in New York City, you’re not alone. In that low-turnout year, thanks to a push by Common Cause to get the measure on the ballot, Gotham voters agreed by a three-to-one margin to amend the City Charter to implement ranked-choice voting (RCV) starting with the next mayoral race, in 2021. We were told that the adjustment would decrease negative campaigning and produce winners who had proved successful at building coalitions. Also it would streamline the voting process and save money by obviating the need for a runoff vote, previously triggered when no candidate in a party primary received 40 percent of the vote. Voting a second time with the exact same slate would be so tedious that an ultra-low turnout for the runoff would be expected. Who knows what kind of candidate might prevail in such a scenario? New York is weird enough without having to worry about such eventualities.
What is happening in New York City, though, looks more like a farce than reform. Eric Adams, the Brooklyn Borough president and ex-NYPD captain, all but declared victory after Election Day on June 22, when he surged to a nine-point lead among first-choice candidates in the Democratic mayoral primary, which is widely expected to render the general election a formality in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. In a crowded field of 13, Adams garnered an impressive 32 percent of first-choice votes last Tuesday, won all boroughs except Manhattan, and got the nod in most black and Hispanic neighborhoods as well as in the whitest borough, Staten Island.
Ah, but a week later, the Board of Elections ran those same ballots through its ranked-choice system, a nutty Seussian numbers machine that eliminates contenders one by one, and reallocates their votes to more successful candidates, until only two choices are left. As of Tuesday afternoon, it seemed as if this rejiggering had rendered a very different, and startling, result: Suddenly Adams’s twelve-point lead over former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia had been shaved to less than two points. That left open the possibility that with 124,000 absentee ballots and Adams’s lead reduced to 15,908, Garcia, the third-place finisher among first-choice rankings, could win.
However, it did not end there. Late Tuesday night, the Board of Elections announced that it was completely rescinding the vote counts that had caused such a stir earlier that afternoon. In a confusing statement, the board explained that the software used to tabulate rank-choice voting performs tests before the official count, but that, “when the cast vote records were extracted for the first pull of RCV results, it included both test and election night results, producing approximately 135,000 additional records.” Translation: The vote-counting contraption somehow included a substantial number of test votes that weren’t actual votes.
Residents of the world’s greatest city deserve better than this craziness, which may not be sorted out until mid July. Elections should be well-regulated, transparent, decisive, and as speedy as possible. Gothamites are instead dealing with an opaque, confusing, slow-moving monstrosity understood by almost nobody.
Other cities, and Maine, have implemented a similar system. Let them take note: RCV is proving to be a debacle for New York City. Some would argue that the New York City Board of Elections was never a synonym for competence in the first place. And that point is well taken. But the complexity of tabulating votes in this system clearly played a role in this bungle. Elections not only don’t need to be complicated, they shouldn’t be.
Republicans, it should be noted, had only two major candidates, and settled on one of them (Guardian Angels founder and talk-radio host Curtis Sliwa) without RCV, and the resulting delay will allow Sliwa to campaign for nearly a month while the Democrats are still fighting over the identity of their nominee.