NYC mayor race: Test ballots wreak havoc, lead to 135K ballot 'discrepancy' in ranked-choice results

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People vote during the Primary Election Day at P.S. 249 The Caton School on June 22, 2021 in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City.
Michael M. Santiago | Getty Images

This is not how New York City wanted its first foray into ranked-choice voting to go.

After preliminary tabulations from the NYC Board of Elections on Tuesday showed Eric Adams crossing the 50 percent threshold in Round 11 of ranked-choice voting for the Democratic candidate for mayor, there were more questions than answers by the end of the night.

Adams was quick to respond with skepticism toward the result numbers initially posted. He questioned the BOE's total tally of votes as compared to what was announced on primary night.

“The vote total just released by the Board of Elections is 100,000-plus more than the total announced on election night, raising serious questions. We have asked the Board of Elections to explain such a massive increase and other irregularities before we comment on the Ranked Choice Voting projection,” Adams said in a statement, adding that the campaign is “confident that Eric Adams will be the next mayor of New York.”

The BOE said in a tweet that they were aware of “a discrepancy in the unofficial RCV round by round elimination report,” and asking “the public, elected officials and candidates to have patience.”

About two hours after that announcement was made, the BOE took down the results on their website, which instead stated that the unofficial results would be coming Wednesday. The site later only produced an error message.

Later in the evening, the Board of Elections released a statement clarifying where the discrepancy in numbers came from, saying it was a result of the election night results mistakenly being combined with test results that were done before primary day. The test ballots had not been cleared from the system before the BOE conducted the first round of ranked-choice voting results, the BOE said, which meant an additional 135,000 test ballots had been counted as real ones.

“Board staff has removed all test ballot images from the system and will upload election night results, cross-referencing against election night reporting software for verification. The cast vote record will be re-generated and the RCV rounds will be re-tabulated,” the BOE said, apologizing for the mix-up.

Before the results were taken down, they showed Adams edge former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia by just under 16,000 votes (Adams getting 51.1% of the vote to Garcia's 48.9%) in the calculations, which were never official or final.

When voting ended on June 22, Adams, a former police officer, had a lead of around 75,000 votes over civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley, with Garcia following close behind in third place. Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang conceded after the first results were released.

Those vote tallies, though, were highly incomplete. They only included a look at who voters put down as their first choice for the job. New York now allows voters to rank five candidates, in order of preference.

Vote tabulation is done in rounds. In each round, the candidate in last place is eliminated. Votes cast ranking that candidate first are then redistributed to those voters' second choices.

That process repeats until there are only two candidates left, and the one with the most votes wins. Under that system, it would still be possible for Wiley or Garcia to overtake Adams if more voters put them down as their second, third, fourth or even fifth choice in the race.

In the unofficial count from the ranked choice rounds, initially posted Tuesday afternoon, the difference in percentage of ballots between Adams, Wiley and Garcia remained about the same through round nine, when candidates Dianne Morales, Shaun Donovan and Scott Stinger were eliminated.

In round 10, Andrew Yang is eliminated. After votes for him are redistributed between the three remaining candidates, Garcia gets a sizeable boost — not surprising considering the candidates campaigned together in the final weekend before primary day. But while Garcia was able to take a slight lead over Wiley at that time, Adams still held about an 11 point lead.

After falling to third place, Wiley is eliminated in round 11, and Garcia sees her largest surge. Adams nets just over 44,000 more votes in that final round, but Garcia gains nearly 117,000 — signifying much better support among Wiley voters than Adams had.

Signs outside a voting site in Manhattan as voters head to the polls for the Democratic primary for mayor and other elected positions on June 22, 2021 in New York City.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images

But all that comes before absentee ballots have been counted — a crucial caveat that could ultimately determine the winner. Even before the “discrepancy,” there was always a chance the unofficial results that were supposed to be released Tuesday could have changed considerably in coming weeks, with tens of thousands of those absentee ballots being counted.

More than 125,000 Democrats voted by absentee ballot in the primary, based on ballots received through Tuesday. The borough with the most absentee ballots returned was Manhattan with more than 40,000. Queens and Brooklyn weren't far behind, with about 37,000 and 33,000, respectively.

None of those ballots were included in the city's first pass at ranked choice analysis. Elections officials plan on conducting another round of ranked choice analysis on July 6 that includes absentee ballots.

In a statement after the unofficial and incomplete results were released, the Garcia campaign said they were “confident about a path to victory” but also called for patience in waiting for the full results.

“Once all the votes are counted, I know everyone will support the Democratic nominee and that's exactly what I intend to do. We look forward to the final results. Democracy is worth waiting for,” Garcia said in a statement.

Wiley echoed that sentiment, saying that “we must allow the democratic process to continue and count every vote so that New Yorkers have faith in our democracy and government. And we must all support its results.”

The Democratic primary winner will be the prohibitive favorite in the general election against Curtis Sliwa, the Republican founder of the Guardian Angels.

Either Adams or Wiley would be the second Black mayor of New York City, and either Garcia or Wiley would be the first woman mayor.

Adams, 60, is a moderate Democrat who opposed the “defund the police” movement and said that under his leadership, the city could find a way to fight crime while also combating a legacy of racial injustice in policing.

He was previously a state senator before becoming Brooklyn's Borough President, a job in which he lacks lawmaking power, but handles some constituent services and discretionary city spending.

Wiley, 57, served as counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio and previously chaired a civilian panel that investigates complaints of police misconduct.

A former legal analyst for MSNBC, she ran as a progressive who would cut $1 billion from the police budget and divert it to other city agencies.

Garcia, 51, is a city government veteran who ran as a nonideological crisis manager well-suited to guiding New York out of a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Garcia ran the department of sanitation from 2014 until leaving last September to explore a run for mayor. De Blasio also tapped Garcia to run an emergency food distribution program during the coronavirus pandemic after earlier appointing her interim chair of the city's embattled public housing system.

She earlier served as chief operating officer of the city's department of environmental protection, responsible for water and sewer systems.

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