Inside the Turmoil at the Agency Running Ranked-Choice Voting
The New York City Board of Elections, which has a history of mishaps, is now under intense fire for its error in releasing mayoral primary results.
Absentee ballots, which will be key to final results in the mayoral primary, were counted at Queens Borough Hall on Wednesday.
Credit...Dave Sanders for The New York Times
By Brian M. Rosenthal, Dana Rubinstein, Andy Newman, Anne Barnard and Ed Shanahan
Published June 30, 2021
Updated July 2, 2021
As New Yorkers began to cast ballots in the first citywide election with ranked-choice voting, turmoil quietly roiled the government agency overseeing the election.
The agency, the New York City Board of Elections, had lost its executive director and one of his top deputies just weeks before early voting. It was being pressured to change its plan for releasing results.
And as Primary Day approached on June 22, the board’s remaining leaders had repeatedly declined help with the ranked-choice software and delayed training for employees, creating confusion among the staff.
On Tuesday, as the city eagerly awaited results in the mayoral primary and other major races, the problems burst into public view when the agency released preliminary ranked-choice vote totals — only to retract them hours later, acknowledging that they were no longer trustworthy.
Officials explained that the board had mistakenly included more than 130,000 test ballots in the preliminary count. A new ranked-choice tally was run on Wednesday, and the top-line results were unchanged: Eric Adams, who had the most first-place votes on primary night, was still the first choice, but by a far narrower numerical margin over his closest rival, Kathryn Garcia.
The results, however, seemed almost anticlimactic, with the memory of Tuesday’s snafu still causing outrage across the city and renewing calls for changes at the elections board. It also resurrected long-held frustrations about the barriers that have persistently blocked reforms at the agency, despite decades of blunders and scandals.
“It’s just one fiasco after another, year after year,” said Lulu Friesdat, executive director of Smart Elections, an elections reform group. “The fact that we haven’t made the effort to change that is shocking. It’s appalling.”
New York is the only state in the country with local election boards whose staffers are chosen almost entirely by Democratic and Republican Party bosses. The system is meant to ensure fairness by empowering the parties to watch each other, but for decades the board in New York City has been criticized for nepotism, ineptitude and corruption.
In recent years, the political appointees who run the board have stumbled again and again. They mistakenly purged about 200,000 people from voter rolls ahead of the 2016 election; they forced some voters to wait in four-hour lines on Election Day 2018; and they sent erroneous ballots to nearly 100,000 New Yorkers seeking to vote by mail last year.
Still, while some lawmakers have suggested reforms, the proposals have failed to gain much traction. The structure of the election board is enshrined in the New York State Constitution, so it is hard to change, and political leaders have little incentive to support any reforms because the current system gives them a lot of power.
The snafu in ranked-choice results created outrage across the city.Credit...Dave Sanders for The New York Times
On Wednesday, facing anger and ridicule from across the political spectrum — including in a statement sent by former President Donald J. Trump — leaders in the New York State Senate and Assembly vowed to hold hearings to finally tackle problems at the board.
“The situation in New York City is a national embarrassment and must be dealt with promptly and properly,” said Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat who leads the Senate, in a statement. “In the coming weeks, the Senate will be holding hearings on this situation and will seek to pass reform legislation as a result at the earliest opportunity.”
Even as lawmakers promised reforms, the board acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that it had been operating through the election season without much of its leadership team.
Michael Ryan, who has served as the board’s executive director since 2013, has been on medical leave since early March, and Pamela Perkins, the agency’s administrative manager, retired on June 1 after nearly two decades in the position, a spokeswoman confirmed.
The New York Post reported Mr. Ryan’s medical leave earlier Wednesday.
Wilma Brown Phillips, who was chosen to succeed Ms. Perkins, started the job on Monday, meaning the board did not have an administrative manager on Primary Day.
In the absence of Mr. Ryan and Ms. Perkins, both Democrats, day-to-day operations were effectively run by the board’s two top Republicans, Dawn Sandow and Georgea Kontzamanis.
Ms. Sandow is a former executive director of the Bronx Republican Party with deep ties to Guy Velella, a longtime lawmaker and Bronx party leader who quit elected office in 2004 after pleading guilty in a bribery conspiracy.
The leadership vacuum — during an intense election, with a new method of voting — caused tumult at the board for months, several employees said.
As the board dealt with those issues, it also ignored offers of technological assistance from the supplier of the software that it would use to tabulate the ranked-choice votes.
The supplier, Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, first offered to help on May 26 and then tried again several times, said its policy director, Christopher W. Hughes.
“We had offered up to the Board of Elections to be there in person or remotely and support running the ranked-choice voting election,” Mr. Hughes said in an interview on Wednesday.
Mr. Hughes said the resource center could have run a parallel process, using the same data and a copy of the same software, to ensure that the results matched. Doing so would have made it more likely that they would have caught the test ballots that were inadvertently added to the tally on Tuesday, he said.
Valerie Vazquez-Diaz, a spokeswoman for the elections board, declined to address the substance of Mr. Hughes’s assertion.
Instead, she reiterated the board’s position that the problem was not caused by the software, but by the agency’s staff.
“The issue was not the software,” Ms. Vazquez-Diaz said. “There was a human error where a staffer did not remove the test ballot images from the Election Management System.”
Understanding the potential role of human error, Mr. Hughes had offered to train New York City election workers on the software, and to provide “remote or in-person support” when it came time to tabulate the vote.
His original proposal set out a budget of $90,000 for assistance through 2025, at the cost of $100 or $150 an hour. But he did not hear back, even after trying again on June 2, June 14 and finally, June 21, the day before the primary.
The organization’s software was used last year in primaries in Kansas, Wyoming and Alaska. Mr. Hughes said the center always offered some assistance to jurisdictions using its software.
“Other jurisdictions tended to be more responsive to outreach, though,” he said.
Delays plagued the plan to train staff in the software used for ranked-choice voting. Credit...Dave Sanders for The New York Times
The board also got a late start in testing the software to generate the ranked-choice results because of an impasse with the State Board of Elections that took more than a year to resolve. As recently as a month before the election, the board still faced the possibility of having to count hundreds of thousands of ballots by hand.
Only on May 25 did the state board give a green light to the city board’s preferred software package, known as the Universal Ranked-Choice Voting Tabulator.
Douglas Kellner, the co-chairman of the state Board of Elections, said the delay was caused by the city election board itself, as well as resistance from Republicans on the state board.
“The city Board of Elections had other priorities, that was one issue,” Mr. Kellner said. “And when they finally got around to saying, ‘We have a ranked-choice voting election next year,’ the Republicans at the state Board of Elections started dragging their feet, because they question whether the city even had the authority to amend the charter to provide for this system of voting. So that added several months of additional delay.”
Delays also plagued the plan to train employees on the software and ranked-choice voting itself, workers said. Two employees said they did not receive training until after early voting had already begun.
A final challenge emerged when the board leaders struggled to decide how and when to release the results of the ranked-choice voting.
The board always planned to release only the results of first-choice votes by early voters and in-person voters on primary night. Initially, it planned to then wait until it had received all the absentee votes to conduct the instant runoff enabled by the ranked-choice part of the election.
However, officials had received pressure to release results earlier, including from Councilman Brad Lander, who proposed legislation last December to require earlier reporting. Some supporters of ranked-choice voting pushed to make raw voting data public early on, in part because they feared that if the absentee votes changed the results, critics would blame ranked-choice voting.
At the last minute — just a few days before Primary Day, employees said — the board settled on a compromise: It would release the results of an instant runoff just for the early votes and in-person voters, as something of a test of the system. That was the release on Tuesday, which was calculated erroneously and sparked the outrage.
Glitch Reveals Ballot Choices of N.Y.C. Voters, Including Mayor’s Son
The Board of Elections inadvertently allowed the mayoral primary votes of 378 New Yorkers, including Dante de Blasio, to become public, a report found.
Dante de Blasio, right, listed his residence as Gracie Mansion, allowing researchers to use voter records to pinpoint and identify his vote.
Credit...Noam Galai/Getty Images
By Dana Rubinstein
Published Sept. 20, 2021Updated Oct. 11, 2021
When a well-known 20-something New Yorker cast his Democratic primary ballot in June, he had every reason to assume that no one would know his choice for mayor — a point of interest for many, since his father was the current mayor.
As it turns out, Dante de Blasio, the son of Mayor Bill de Blasio, was not afforded that privacy.
In a report released Monday by the Stevens Institute of Technology and Princeton University’s Electoral Innovation Lab, researchers said that missteps by the New York City Board of Elections had inadvertently allowed the lab to determine the votes of 378 New Yorkers in the mayoral primary. Those voters include the mayor’s son and a former New York City deputy mayor, Robert K. Steel.
Because that information is supposed to be secret, in accordance with state law, the report’s findings suggest a breach of one of America’s most prized guarantees, the secret ballot, and represent another blemish for the city Board of Elections.
“I am appalled by this violation of my privacy,” said Dante de Blasio, a registered Democrat, via a spokesman for his father, the mayor. “My main concern is not that people will know who I voted for, but rather that the B.O.E. has repeatedly shown complete incompetence and still hasn’t been reformed by the state. Hundreds of my fellow voters have had their right to a private ballot violated by the B.O.E.’s blatant carelessness. Enough is enough.”
The researchers were able to identify the voting records of the individual New York City voters by cross-referencing the New York State voter file — a list of every registered voter, whether they voted and their address — with the board’s cast-vote records, which contained hundreds of voting precincts where just one ballot was cast.
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Those precincts included that of Mr. de Blasio, who is registered at Gracie Mansion, and that of Mr. Steel, a registered Republican who lives in No Ho, a heavily Democratic part of Manhattan.
Dante de Blasio ranked Maya Wiley as his first choice for mayor in the June Democratic primary, followed by Eric Adams, Kathryn Garcia, Raymond Mc Guire and Shaun Donovan, according to the researchers.
Mr. Steel, when reached by phone, described himself as alarmed and disappointed by his inclusion in the list of identifiable voters, but declined to comment further.
It was easier for researchers to identify Republican voting records, like Mr. Steel’s, than Democratic voting records, because there are fewer Republicans in New York City. Democratic registration here outstrips Republican registration by nearly seven to one. In Mr. Steel’s voting precinct, there were only 19 registered Republicans, as of August.
The problem of eliminating the anonymity of data by cross-referencing data sets is fairly common, and there’s a whole area of math dedicated to finding ways to share data while protecting privacy.
The New York City Board of Elections is not considered among the most sophisticated managers of data. In June, the board accidentally released an incorrect vote tally for the most important mayoral primary in a generation, and then had to retract that tally and tabulate the vote all over again.
This was the first mayoral primary in city history to use ranked-choice voting, in which city voters were able to rank up to five choices for mayor in order of preference. Under the system, if no candidate won a majority, the last-place winner was eliminated. The second-choice votes of those who had favored the last-place candidate were counted instead. The process continued until there was a winner.
The winner was Mr. Adams, who will face Curtis Sliwa, the Republican candidate, in the November general election.
The new voting system proved to be a challenge for the board, which repeatedly declined technical assistance from the supplier of the software that it used to tabulate the ranked-choice votes.
On Sept. 13, board officials discussed the report’s findings with Lindsey Cormack, an assistant professor of political science at the Stevens Institute of Technology, who wrote the report with Professor Sam Wang, who directs the Electoral Innovation Lab, and Jesse T. Clark, a Princeton postdoctoral researcher.
In that conversation, board officials said that they believe their legal reporting requirements compelled them to release the voting records in a particular format.
“The manner in which election results are reported is legally mandated,” a board spokeswoman, Valerie Vazquez-Diaz, said via email.
The researchers recommended the board group single-voter precincts with neighboring, larger precincts to avoid such ready identification, a practice the board contends would require a change to the City Charter.
The researchers say that whatever the legal solution, the board should pursue it.
“We go into the ballot box thinking that our votes are private, that our choices are private,” Professor Cormack said.
Good government groups took comfort in the limited nature of the problem.
Roughly one million New York City residents voted in the June primary, and only 378 votes were revealed.
“This is a minimal problem,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/New York. “This is a very very small fraction of the total number of voters. And they’re absolutely right, it’s easy to solve this problem.”