The New York City Board of Elections Wins at Screwing Up

Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

The New York City Board of Elections threw the mayoral race into chaos on Tuesday when it botched reporting the correct ranked-choice voting tabulation. People quickly noticed a discrepancy in the data posted by the BOE on Tuesday, which resulted in hours of confusion and swift criticism from the mayoral candidates whose fates were left unclear. The board later said in a statement on Twitter that 135,000 test votes were left in a computer system and added to the tally by accident.

Though the ranked-choice system being used is fairly new to the city, complaints about the Board of Elections are not. Notoriously, the BOE has been staffed by family members of politicians and employees who will clock in and then head to the gym. Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the board’s previous scandals.

The long wait to vote early last fall

The New York Post reported in October on the long lines voters had to endure when voting early in the 2020 election, citing large numbers of people at sites and not enough ballot scanners to accommodate the crowds:

Take two locations in Brooklyn: The BOE only sent five ballot scanners to the New York City College of Technology on Jay Street, even though it assigned more than 60,000 voters to the site for early voting. And Barclay’s Center was allocated the same number of scanners, despite being the early voting spot for another 32,000.

2020’s absentee-ballot mailing snafu

Last September, Intelligencer wrote about the printing error by a BOE vendor that sent incorrectly labeled absentee ballots to voters’ homes:

Almost 100,000 Brooklyn voters might receive absentee ballots with someone else’s name on them, meaning their votes would not be counted, according to officials. The gobsmacking error is just one more concern thrown on a pile of worries about the unprecedented use of mail-in voting with barely a month to go before Election Day.

The New York City Board of Elections on Tuesday blamed a vendor’s single “print run” of ballots for potentially disenfranchising tens of thousands of voters. Rochester-based Phoenix Graphics is blamed for stamping the wrong name on “oath” return envelopes sent along with absentee ballots to voters across Brooklyn, NY1’s Courtney Gross reported. The ballots themselves contain no known errors.

An illegal voter purge

Vox’s Ella Nilsen reported on how the BOE purged more than 200,000 voters from rolls in 2014 and 2015, the majority from Brooklyn:

After an investigation, the attorney general’s office detailed separate purges in a complaint against the City Board of Elections; first, the board manually identified and purged the records of over 100,000 voters who had failed to vote or update their forms since 2008, which is illegal under state and federal law.

Second, the board looked addresses in the National Change of Address database, and removed another 100,000 voters from the rolls it suspected to have moved outside of the city. But they did this after giving these voters just 30 days notice, when they were required by state and federal law to keep voters on the rolls for at least two more federal elections after notifying them. …

After investigating, the city and the attorney general’s office settled fairly quickly in 2017, and the board of elections agreed to a correction plan it would implement in the years leading up to 2020.

As part of this, the board agreed to restore the voting rights of purged voters, be more transparent, and put down a plan to prevent further unlawful purges. Lerner said she believes the board and the city have put forward a good faith effort to try to correct the issue, but the fact remains such a massive purge leaves suspicion whenever similar problems arise.

Serious problems uncovered by 2013 probe

A six-month investigation by the Department of Investigation in 2013 uncovered a range of issues at the BOE, as DNA Info reported at the time:

Investigators who visited several polling sites during the 2013 primary and general elections found poll workers who routinely gave incorrect instructions to voters, including workers at several sites who were taught to tell voters to “vote down the line,” according to the report. Investigators — who conducted their work both undercover and openly — also recorded more than a dozen different types of violation of voter privacy, including poll workers looking at and sometimes even commenting on a voter’s choices when they handed over the cards for scanning, the report says.

In 61 instances, investigators posing as ineligible voters — which includes the deceased, convicted felons, and those who don’t live in the city — were allowed to cast a vote without being challenged or questioned by city poll workers, the report found. … In addition, the investigation found 69 board employees who appeared to have a relative working within the BOE, with the likelihood of many more, the report noted.

The font debacle

The New York Times reported in 2012 that voters received ballots on which the candidates’ names were printed in seven-point font, which the paper described as “akin to the ingredient list on the side of a cereal box.” The Times also noted that the instructions on how to fill out the ballot were easier to read than the names of the candidates.

A long tradition of scandal

In a long, must-read look at the beleaguered agency last October, the New York Times noted the BOE’s recent problems are part of a decades-old pattern:

In 1940, a city investigation found it was plagued by “illegality, inefficiency, laxity and waste.” In 1971, a New York Times editorial derided it as “at best a semi‐functioning anachronism.” And in 1985, another city inquiry said it had an “almost embarrassing lack of understanding” of its jobr.

The Times also passes along a startling story about missing ballots in 2000:

[Liz] Krueger, a Democrat, narrowly lost a 2000 State Senate race to Roy Goodman, the incumbent and a Republican Party leader with sway over the elections board. Months later, according to three people familiar with the incident, workers found hundreds of ballots in a Board of Elections air conditioning duct. The ballots were from a part of the district that had favored Ms. Krueger. …

“Now in close races,” Ms. Krueger said, “I personally call up each side and say, ‘Check the ceiling tiles every night.’”

This post has been updated to include additional scandals.

The New York City Board of Elections Wins at Screwing Up