The race to succeed Bill de Blasio as the next mayor of New York was always going to be one of the big political stories in the United States this year. But this week the city's primary process was thrown into disarray as the election board bungled the release of highly anticipated tallies.
For the first time New York is using a ranked-choice voting system to choose its mayor, after New Yorkers voted to adopt the system for primaries and special elections in a 2019 ballot.
Because New York is strongly Democratic – and increasingly so in recent years – the winner of the Democratic primary is virtually certain to emerge victorious from the full election in November.
Primary day was June 22nd, when hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers cast their vote for their preferred Democratic candidate, though some voted through absentee ballots and via the early voting system that began on June 12th.
The city's Board of Elections set out a detailed timetable for the announcement of the results. While the first choice picks in the ranked-voting races were announced within a day of the election – and showed Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams with a commanding lead – the next update was due a week later. But the announcement of the much-anticipated second round was thrown into disarray this week.
The new tallies showed Adams's lead had significantly tightened, with Kathryn Garcia just two percentage points behind him. But a few hours later, the elections board tweeted that there had been a discrepancy in the counting after journalists had pointed out that about 135,000 more votes were counted than had been reported on election night.
A later update said the extra votes were “test” votes that had inadvertently been included in the count. “Human error” meant that a staff member did not remove the test ballots from the computer system, officials said.
A revised number was posted the next day, still showing Garcia tightening the gap further as she benefited from transfers from low-performing candidates such as Andrew Yang.
But the damage was done.
New York city’s Board of Elections has had a problematic track record, and has faced accusations of mismanagement for decades, including in last year’s presidential elections when long queues and delayed results occurred across the city. At one point during last year’s presidential election campaign, the agency sent incorrect ballots to 100,000 voters who wanted to vote by mail.
Unusually, New York state allows the local Democratic and Republican parties to run local election boards, a system that critics say has led to nepotism and political cronyism.
The government agency had lost senior employees in the run-up to the primary election, and there were reports that officials declined an offer of training from the company providing the voting software.
Amid fury from New Yorkers at the voting debacle, senior figures in the New York legislature have vowed to hold hearings.
In the meantime the country will have to wait until mid-July for a final result. Adams – who had already controversially claimed, without citing evidence, that two of his rivals were trying to block a person of colour from winning the election by campaigning together – filed a lawsuit seeking to reserve his right to challenge the final results.
The voting debacle may hurt the reputation of ranked-choice voting, a system that is used with ease in countries such as Ireland and Australia, but has been embraced in only a handful of jurisdictions in the United States.
It also may have more profound consequences for the country at large, where the issue of election integrity is a live political issue. Former president Donald Trump, who continues to claim that last year's presidential election was fraudulent, seized on the New York reporting fiasco, denouncing it as "an embarrassment and a total mess".
Republican-controlled states across the country have been busy implementing tighter rules around where and when people can vote, spurred on by false allegations that last year’s presidential election was somehow rampant with fraud.
On Thursday, these efforts received a boost when the supreme court ruled that two voting laws introduced in Arizona in 2016 were not discriminatory. President Joe Biden in a statement said he was "deeply disappointed" by the decision.
For the millions of Trump voters who believe that Biden did not win last year’s election, the New York primary issue could not have come at a better time. But for the sake of American democracy, the country’s most populous city cannot afford any more mistakes.