Vote-count debacle in New York City adds fuel to raging debate about election integrity

WASHINGTON – New York City's Democratic mayoral primary was thrust into the national debate about voting rights and election integrity this week after election officials revealed they had erroneously included 135,000 sample ballots in tabulations made public Tuesday.

Election experts and political observers of both parties said Wednesday they doubted New York City's fiasco would change many minds about the necessity of rewriting election laws in a variety of states.

But they did express concern that New York's problems will further fuel Republican rhetoric and misgivings about how U.S. elections are conducted.

"It doesn’t matter that New York’s problems have nothing to do with Arizona or Georgia," said John Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California. "When you’re gaslighting, any gas will do."

Former President Donald Trump and GOP allies pointed to the New York error as justification for changes to voting laws in states like Georgia and Arizona, where Trump lost in the 2020 president election.

"Watch the mess you are about to see in New York City, it will go on forever," Trump said in a statement Wednesday.

An election worker goes over a ranked choice voting explanation card with a voter before she casts her vote during early voting in the primary election, Monday, June 14, 2021, at the Church of St. Anthony of Padua in the Soho neighborhood of New York.
An election worker goes over a ranked choice voting explanation card with a voter before she casts her vote during early voting in the primary election, Monday, June 14, 2021, at the Church of St. Anthony of Padua in the Soho neighborhood of New York.

Trump has repeatedly pushed false claims that widespread voter fraud led to his loss to President Joe Biden in the 2020 election. His efforts to overturn the results ran into a string of defeats in the courts, including the Supreme Court. But Trump's claims have galvanized his supporters, many of whom tell pollsters they don't trust the results of last year's election.

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Whether New York's isolated election debacle triggers more support for election changes elsewhere remains to be seen. Republican-controlled legislatures across the country are changing state election rules while Democrats have failed to pass a national voting rights package in Congress.

Partisan positions have hardened, according to experts, nearly eight months after the 2020 presidential election and nearly six months after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol designed to subvert Biden's victory.

From new voting rules in Georgia to a "ballot audit" in Arizona, Trump backers are pushing changes that would, in essence, give them more control over how elections are conducted and tabulated. Wisconsin and Michigan, two other states that Trump won in 2016 but lost to Biden in 2020, are among other states considering changes in the wake of Trump's complaints.

But former Attorney General William Barr and a swath of judges and election officials in several states have dismissed Trump's claims of vote fraud as groundless; voter fraud in any form is very rare. An analysis from the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice found 491 cases of absentee voter fraud out of billions of votes cast across all U.S. elections from 2000 to 2012.

Not many minds will be changed by New York's problems, said Republican political commentator Scott Jennings.

"Everybody ramps up to an extreme position," he said, "neither of which is true."

The issues in NYC vs. complaints in states

Outspoken Trump allies, such as Rep. Elise Stefanik, of New York, who was recently elevated to House GOP leadership, said the mistake underscores a need for tighter election rules and required audits.

"I'm looking forward to the far left (Democrats) of NYC joining me in supporting election audits and strengthening election integrity," she said in a tweet Wednesday. "Will the media meltdown like they do about Republicans who want to strengthen elections? Methinks not."

But the election complaints in Trump-contested states are different from the issue in New York City. The biggest difference is that New York's problems stem from a new and unique voting system called "ranked-choice voting."

Under the new system, voters can list up to five candidates on their ballots, ranking them in order of preference.

If no candidate receives more than 50% of the first-place votes in a first count, lower-ranked candidates are eliminated and another count is commenced. In that second round of voting, first preference votes for failed candidates are eliminated, and second choices on those ballots are redistributed to the remaining candidates.

Steven Law, president and CEO of Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, told USA TODAY the error seems to be a fault the "disastrous performance" by the board of elections and confusion over ranked-choice voting.

"It does reinforce the GOP argument that simpler voting systems, which yield a conclusive result on election night are vastly superior to those with lots of different ways of voting that open the door to error and delay, if not fraud," Law said.

Tuesday's error by the elections board further delays a process that was already going to take weeks. Officials must still count around 124,000 absentee ballots, and Democrats may not learn the winner of their primary until mid-July, giving Trump and other Republicans plenty of time to mock the process.

The race between Brooklyn borough President Eric Adams and his closest rival Kathryn Garcia, a former head of the Department of Sanitation, appeared to narrow significantly after the partial results were released Tuesday afternoon, but hours later the board removed the tally from its website and said there were issues with it.

New York City mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia speaks during a press conference on June 10, 2021 in the Bushwick neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough in New York City.
New York City mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia speaks during a press conference on June 10, 2021 in the Bushwick neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough in New York City.

Karoline Leavitt, a spokeswoman in the Trump White House, cited the delays in announcing winners under the ranked-choice voting system as contributing to making people skeptical about "what's going on" with the counting of the votes.

"The American people deserve to know the results of their elections on Election Day, or at least the day after," Leavitt said.

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But others argued New York voting has nothing to do with balloting procedures nationwide. If anything, some said, the board's announcement about the flawed count showed that the system is being checked and corrected.

"There are checks in place to catch things like this, just as there are all over the country," said Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the New York-based Brennan Center For Justice.

Norden, whose organization tracks voting law changes across the country, said "Trump and his allies are going to use any opportunity to cast doubt on elections in general."

Hopefully, most Americans will realize that New York City's election process is unique, Norden said.

He added, however, that "people can use a kernel of truth to spread a lot of confusion."

'Neither of these elections were a hoax or a scam'

Those who support ranked-choice voting in New York and for voters across the country also worry the incident could be a setback.

"Anytime you have a major error in a big election, it's not good for that system," said Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a centrist think tank.

"I worry that as rank choice voting begins to spread having a big fumble like this will cause people to question whether it's a good idea when in fact the problem here wasn't rank choice voting – the problem was the competency of the board of elections."

Bennett pointed out how the system works well in other jurisdictions such as Maine, for instance.

Third Way is a major proponent of rank choice voting, arguing it tends to drive candidates towards the political middle because it requires they appeal to more than just their base voters.

In 2018, the group outlined several election reforms for Congress and state legislatures to consider including adopting a rank choice system. Its strategists and researchers argued it would "empower voters by giving them a real choice" that would ensure winning candidates earn the vote of more than 50% of a given constituency.

"You have to appeal to other people's voters as well," Bennett said. "And that means you have to be they have to have a broader appeal, and we think that gets better results. So I think rank choice voting is very bad for hyper partisans, but it's very good for people who are looking for kind of common sense solutions and relative moderation."

Back in New York City, Adams, the early leader in the Democratic mayoral primary, described the mistake as "unfortunate."

But the former police captain's campaign said Wednesday it remained confident he would win and cast no doubt on the election's integrity. He also slammed Trump for inserting himself in the race.

"As always, Trump gets it wrong," he said in a tweet Wednesday. "Yesterday, the results released by the (board of elections) had discrepancies which are being addressed. There were NO similar issues in November. Neither of these elections were a hoax or a scam. We need to count every vote. That takes time, and that's ok."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NYC mayoral race thrusts election integrity debate into spotlight