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NEW YORK — "Foolishness." "Unfortunate." "Generations of failures."
New York City's Board of Election is facing widespread criticism after it mistakenly included some 135,000 "test" ballots in partial results released Tuesday in its tightly-contested mayoral election.
The three-way contest — between Brooklyn borough President Eric Adams; Maya Wiley, former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio; and Kathryn Garcia, former Department of Sanitation head — has been upended with a murky picture of who is ahead after the election board's botched release and scores of mail-in votes remain to be counted.
Ranked choice voting is being used for the first time in citywide primaries this year, and the Board of Elections has said full results are not expected until later in July.
The board released revised partial returns Wednesday evening, and the tally showed a razor-thin race too close to call without absentee ballots. Adams narrowly leads Garcia in the final round after a larger share of Wiley's votes were redistributed in her favor.
But the debacle over the erroneous release has raised wider concerns about how the body handles elections, with public officials and experts quickly blaming the Board of Elections for the errors rather than the use of ranked choice voting.
"Yet again, the fundamental structural flaws of the Board of Elections are on display," de Blasio, who leaves office at the end of the year, said in a statement. The board's decades-long problems were detailed by the New York Times in October, which reported widespread nepotism, inexperience and blunders from the politically appointed staff.
The Board of Election is a bipartisan body, and its commissioners are recommended by both Republican and Democratic party officials. The City Council then appoints commissioners to four-year terms. Commissioners then appoint a bipartisan staff.
"Observers have long worried that an agency rife with politics and patronage couldn’t be trusted to steer local democracy," said Michael Hendrix, director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute.
More on the NYC mayoral primary: Disarray after 'test' ballots counted; 'foolishness' blamed on election board
City's election board 'can't even do the math,' critics say
The reaction against the city's election board has been swift. In a statement, Adams said the error was "unfortunate" and that "it is critical that New Yorkers are confident in their electoral system, especially as we rank votes in a citywide election for the first time."
His campaign on Wednesday said it was filing a lawsuit "to preserve our right to a fair election process and to have a judge oversee and review ballots, if necessary." He urged his competitors to join the petition "as we all seek a clear and trusted conclusion to this election."
Garcia, who appeared to gain considerable support in the erroneous results, also criticized the misstep as "deeply troubling."
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams called the board's mistake "foolishness," saying the board has "routinely shown incompetency in elections."
The issue shouldn't be seen as a problem with ranked voting but rather as "human error" on the side of the board, Hendrix said.
"The Board of Elections makes 'Veep' look like a Ken Burns documentary. They can’t even do the math on dummy ballots," he said.
Hendrix said the board would have been better off running the tabulations as votes came in, similar to other cities that use ranked choice voting.
Sid Davidoff, who advised former Mayor John Lindsay, questioned why the Board planned to release the partial results to begin with.
"The number of uncounted absentee ballots is so significant that no algorithm they used was even going to matter," Davidoff said.
"There was no reason to do this, and the result has been to confuse the situation and raise more questions about the process."
De Blasio on Tuesday called for "a complete structural rebuild of the board" and pointed toward proposed state legislation that would "professionalize" it and remove party affiliation.
Last September, the board faced criticism when some voters received absentee ballots with the wrong names and addresses on their ballot envelopes. The board blamed the error on a printing vendor.
Pointing to that error, Wiley characterized the board as having been plagued by "generations of failures that have gone unaddressed."
"We have once again seen the mismanagement that has resulted in a lack of confidence in results, not because there is a flaw in our election laws, but because those who implement it have failed too many times," she said in a statement.
Meanwhile, proponents of ranked voting sought to distance the new system, approved in a 2019 ballot initiative, from the chaos.
The system allows voters to select up to top five candidates, and votes are redistributed in an elimination process if no candidate commands a majority of first-choice votes.
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/New York who has advocated for the switch, said the error by the Board of Election should not be cast as a problem with ranked voting.
"We are not at all happy that it happened, but it was a mistake that the (Board of Elections) is moving to correct," she said.
Exit polling data released by her organization and conducted by Edison Research found widespread use and support of the new voting system in the primary. More than 80% of voters ranked at least two candidates on their ballots in the mayoral primary, and more than 40% ranked five.
Over three quarters of those surveyed also said they wanted ranked choice voting in future elections, and a similar percentage said they felt like they understood the system extremely or very well.
Where does the NYC mayoral election stand?
The revised results released Wednesday showed Adams with a 51.1% lead over Garcia's 48.9% in the ninth round of ranked voting elimination.
However, Garcia barely made it into the final round, having led Wiley in the eighth round by only 0.1%, or 347 votes.
The returns, though partial, show Wiley's elimination giving Garcia 44% of her voters whereas Adams would gain just under 17%. Meanwhile, almost 39% of Wiley voters ranked neither candidate. By the final round, more than 117,000 ballots were "exhausted," meaning those voters ranked neither candidate.
On election night, Adams enjoyed a roughly 9-point election when only the first choice preferences were released, but his victory was never guaranteed. Wiley trailed in second, Garcia in third and Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur and former 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, sat in fourth. Yang, once viewed as Adams' top challengers, dropped out that night.
The returns posted Wednesday include only in-person ballots from Election Day and early voting. More than 125,000 Democratic mail-in votes had been returned but uncounted as of Tuesday. In the competitive primary, most expected not to know the winner until at least some of those absentee ballots were included in results.
After the erroneous returns were published online Tuesday, some began noticing potential problems. Within a few hours, the Board tweeted it was "aware there is a discrepancy" in the results published online.
Adams' campaign released a statement saying more than 100,000 votes appeared to be in the returns and called on the board to explain the increase.
By Tuesday night, the board removed the results from its website and said in a statement that approximately 135,000 ballots that had been used to test the ranked choice voting software were not removed from the system before the actual ballots were added.
The statement said board staff has removed the additional votes and the in-person ballots would be re-uploaded and recalculated. The results are expected later Wednesday.
False 2020 fraud claims rear ugly head
Even before the confusion Tuesday, there had been questions on the campaign trail around the new system that were raised mostly by Adams.
The weekend before Election Day, Garcia and Yang began campaigning together, urging their voters to fully utilize the ranked voting system. Adams' campaign attempted to cast the alliance as a form of disenfranchisement, and the candidate had previously criticized the expected timeline of the result rollout.
According to POLITICO, Adams was asked before Election Day whether he would assure voters he would accept the results and would not repeat claims of a stolen election, similar to what former President Donald Trump has said.
“I assure voters that no one is gonna steal the election from me,” Adams said, per the news outlet.
Trump weighed in Tuesday after the Board of Elections mistake, calling it "an embarrassment and total mess," but said it was "far better" than the 2020 presidential election.
Trump has repeatedly made false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. The Department of Justice has found no evidence of widespread voter fraud and Trump's lawyers failed in court proceedings across multiple states to prove their case.
Follow USA TODAY's Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NYC mayoral election: Board of election's results are a debacle