There’s no good time to bungle a vote tally, but it’s hard to imagine a worse moment than right now for American democracy to wheeze so badly. And yet, here we are with the New York City Elections Board revealing Tuesday night that it had mistakenly included 135,000 sample ballots in the live results of the still unresolved Democratic primary for mayor. The sample ballots were used to run tests on the counting software for the city’s first ever citywide ranked choice election where voters are able to rank up to five candidate preferences. The ranked choice method is used elsewhere in the country—and the world—and is considered to be a more representative way of choosing elected officials than a simple plurality that can allow similar candidates to split voter blocs, paving the way, for instance, for a third candidate without much popular support to win office.
Whether ranked choice is good for us or not, we might never know now. Tabulating ranked choice results takes more time because all the votes, in the truest sense, do actually affect the outcome. The Board of Elections posted on its website unofficial preliminary results Tuesday afternoon showing Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams in the lead, but more narrowly than expected ahead of fellow candidates Maya Wiley and Kathryn Garcia, raising the possibility that Adams could be leapfrogged once eliminated candidates’ votes are redistributed to remaining candidates. The elections board quickly took down the unofficial results however and released a statement that there was a discrepancy because of the presence of sample ballots in the live vote count.
There are still 124,000 Democratic absentee ballots to count in the ranked choice process. If a candidate had won a majority of the votes in the initial vote, that candidate would have been the winner just like any election previously. Since that didn’t happen, the new ranked choice method kicked in, sequentially redistributing the votes of the last place candidate to remaining candidates based on voters second choice in their list of candidate preferences. The process continues, eliminating candidates and redistributing votes down voters’ list of preferences until a remaining candidate manages 50 percent of the vote. It is rare but not unheard of for a candidate to be a popular second choice for voters and overtake the leader.
The vote tabulation is more complicated, which is the knock against ranked choice voting—that people don’t understand it and therefore won’t trust it. It’s hard to imagine a better advertisement for that line of thinking than the botched results coming out of New York. The city says it will now have the final vote tally of the June 22 primary by mid-July.