Photo by Mimi Chakarova

Earlier this year, the doings of San Francisco’s Board of Education became a nationwide news story. When the East Coast media takes an interest in a board or commission in our mid-sized West Coast city, it’s rarely an indicator that outstanding and competent work is being done. 

And, lo, that was the case.

It takes less for an arcane branch of New York culture or government to break into national news because New York — and its media apparatus — contemplates itself like a stereotypical stoned person obsessing over his own hands. 

And, lo, that is the case with New York City’s Board of Elections, which has done neither outstanding nor competent work in botching that city’s Democratic mayoral primary to the point that candidates’ lawsuits are piling up like dead bodies in the last act of Hamlet. 

There’s only so much time in a day, and San Francisco has issues enough to report on. So, like most of you, your humble narrator hadn’t previously focused on the New York City Board of Elections. But — Dios mio, man. 

Last year, the New York Times concisely eviscerated the body as a nigh-untouchable haven for incompetence and nepotism operated in a well and truly 19th-century patronage style by both Democratic and Republican party bosses, thereby ensuring job duplication. The Times, in fact earlier eviscerated the Board of Elections as a “semi-functioning anachronism” — in 1971. 

Amazingly, it gets worse. Elections are administered on a county-by-county basis, meaning New York City features multiple bodies staffed by the appointees of Democratic and Republican bigwigs. These are not civil servants but party hacks hired solely based on personal and party loyalty and without any application of anti-nepotism rules. Patterns and practices, naturally, are not consistent on a county-by-county basis; someone’s brother-in-law in one borough is going to do things differently than someone’s niece in another, and someone’s idiot son in yet another. 

But they are consistently bad. As you’d expect, The New York City Board of Elections’ record for adequately administering elections and serving as a steward of the voter rolls is abysmal. Failure is the norm. 

What isn’t the norm is, this year, New York City has enacted ranked-choice voting, which has been used in every local San Francisco election since 2004. 

Predictably, New York City’s Board of Elections botched it. The pre-vote education on the new system was clearly lacking; the manner it chose of tabulating the vote and releasing information maximized opacity and mistrust, and — the rotten cherry on the rancid sundae — it managed to commingle 135,000 test votes meant to calibrate the system with the real votes. This ratcheted up skepticism with the democratic process and offered demagogic candidates a fat pitch for a swing at cheap populism. 

Also predictable: Banner headlines of the sort oozing out of CNN, stating, “The biggest loser in the NYC mayoral race is … ranked-choice voting.” 

The upshot of this reductive and half-bright article — which, astoundingly, wasn’t written by Chris Cillizza — is that the corrupt and incompetent Board of Elections’ bungling of ranked-choice voting may be a silver lining in dissuading other municipalities away from ranked-choice voting. 

Corruption and incompetence, then, isn’t the problem. It’s ranked-choice voting.

There are lots of flaws in this article, and in this line of thinking. To start with, the CNN piece claims New York City is simply too big for ranked-choice voting, ignoring that perhaps not quite 1 million voters actually weighed in for this low-turnout, off-year, June primary. As a point of comparison, San Francisco’s Department of Elections, an outfit a fraction of the size of New York’s, easily crunched 450,000 ballots in November. Everything went smoothly. The Department of Elections is one of the vestiges of city government here in San Francisco that works well, along with vaccine rollout, the library and … and … and … 

We’ll get back to you on that. 

In any event, the problem isn’t ranked-choice voting or that ranked-choice voting is too complicated for voters or Boards of Elections. San Francisco voters are doing just fine: 86.33 percent turnout in November, and New York’s Board of Elections couldn’t compute the tip on a restaurant order. 

The problem is that corrupt, inept and unqualified people are running major election operations in the United States. The problem is that bad-faith politicos are undermining confidence in the democratic process. And the problem — the problem — is that bodies like New York’s Board of Elections are empowering them.

Underwhelming New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to use pizza toppings to illustrate the principle of ranked-choice voting, which was probably a distraction to New York voters who were horrified he’d whip out utensils and eat his pizza with a fork and knife.  

But, fine. You can explain ranked-choice voting this way. Choose your favorite, then your second-favorite, and then your third-favorite, and so on. As candidates are eliminated, their No. 2 votes transfer to other candidates, and this continues until someone has more than half the vote. 

It can be that simple, in the same way that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe can be a simple children’s story about talking animals and magic closets and why you should never accept candy from a witch. 

In reality, however, the Narnia books are a complex Christian allegory. And ranked-choice voting can be complicated, too: Constituents can vote strategically, setting up lines of retreat meant to deny a despised candidate as much as elevate a preferred one. And candidates who do not modify their campaign style and messaging to accommodate a system in which second- and third-place votes can decide the outcome are flirting with outright negligence. 

Ranked-choice voting is not to blame for the fact it takes a while to tabulate votes here in San Francisco and elsewhere. Rather, we have low barriers to entry for voting, a great deal of vote-by-mail ballots, and allow days and days for these postmarked ballots to wend their way to City Hall.

In New York, the law forbids mail ballots from being counted until election day (that doesn’t happen here; a posting of “early absentee” voting is usually online half an hour after polls close). 

But there’s more: In New York, campaign operatives tell me, someone who has mailed in her vote-by-mail ballot but changes her mind can go vote on the day of the election at the polls — and it’s the absentee ballot that’s thrown out. That’s not how it works here, and that adds time to the process. And there’s more still: New York voters who feel they’ve made a mistake have up to seven days to “cure” their ballots. 

So, that’s weeks of process there, and we haven’t even begun to factor in ranked-choice voting. New Yorkers last month also voted for District Attorney, which was not a ranked-choice race, and those results are also likely weeks away.  

Slow election counts aren’t a ranked-choice voting problem. They’re a counting-all-the-votes problem. And, at least in California and New York, we’ve decided that counting all the votes is, ostensibly, a problem we want to have. 

Finally, in San Francisco, anyone with an Internet connection can keep tabs on how the election is going. On election day, the “early absentee” total is posted early followed by some precinct voting and a preliminary ranked-choice run, a couple more precinct updates, and a final ranked-choice run. Then, at 4 p.m. every day thereafter, a new ranked-choice run is released. 

New York City didn’t do that. It released only first-place voting on the night of the election, then, a whole week later, released ranked-choice runs — minimizing transparency and maximizing confusion for voters unused to the predictable tightening of races when second- and third-place votes reallocate. What’s more, New York released its new results while hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots haven’t yet been tabulated, which will only alter things more. And then it added in those test runs, which added cynicism to confusion. 

Had New York been showing its hand all along, that error would’ve been caught quickly and minimized. But, again, it didn’t do that.  

A cynical environment has been fostered. And cynical politicians thrive in cynical environments. 

For more on ranked-choice voting:

So, ranked-choice voting takes lumps for things it has nothing to do with. But, here’s the deal: Staving off ignorant or bad-faith attacks on ranked-choice voting, which your humble narrator has been doing for a decade and change, is a frustrating endeavor. Because ranked-choice voting has been consistently oversold by its proponents, who embrace it with a near-messianic zeal. 

Research by scholars like San Francisco State’s Jason McDaniel reveal that it has not expanded voter participation. It has not reduced the ferocity of campaigning (even if candidates are incentivized to be nicer and more likable in order to reap those No. 2 votes, everybody knows that independent expenditure campaigns can still unleash floods of cash and negativity). Ranked-choice voting does do away with sparse-turnout runoff elections, but even this eliminates the head-to-head campaign both candidates and voters crave to bestow legitimacy. 

(A side note: If cities truly wanted to expand voter participation, they should cease holding consequential elections in the middle of summer on odd years). 

In the days and weeks leading to New York’s election, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams — a Black man, a former Republican cop, and the race’s front-runner — likened other candidates’ decision to run a 1-2 campaign typical of ranked-choice voting as at attempt to disenfranchise Black voters and a return to Jim Crow. He also ventured into Trumpian territory by stating that “No one is gonna steal the election from me,” and refusing to abide by its outcome. 

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams

That’s a hell of a thing to say: There are multiple Black candidates in this race, and mayoral aspirants running a joint 1-2 strategy against a front-runner is simply what you do in a ranked-choice contest. It’s not gaming the system, it is the system. Among the political class, only a fool or a charlatan doesn’t know this. 

With that said, McDaniel notes that his research has indicated that Black politicians have reason to question what good ranked-choice voting does for them. It renders it more difficult to assemble coalitions of people of color and white liberals of the sort Black politicians often require to attain office. 

Fair enough. But the professor goes on to say that comments from Adams and his surrogates have gone “over the line. To claim ranked-choice voting is inherently racist or discriminatory is incorrect. The rules were set in advance. They’re perfectly fair. He should abide by the results.” 

Adams holds a tenuous lead — and since rival Kathryn Garcia seems to actually understand how ranked-choice voting works and campaigned with Andrew Yang in Chinatown and Flushing, she may well come back to pip him at the post via second- and third-place votes. 

And if Adams doesn’t win, abiding by the results seems unlikely. New York state election laws require an “aggrieved candidate” to file suit within 10 days of a primary. Adams, along with other candidates, has already filed suit; this is a place-holder and causes of action can come later. 

The Board of Elections’ blundering has given him any number of technical claims. But New York City politicos I spoke with figured Adams may well put ranked-choice voting on trial, too — and claim it is inherently racist, and potentially in violation of the 14th Amendment. Since federal judges in New York are appointed via a political machine, who knows how that will go. 

Even if ranked-choice voting isn’t upended, it’s possible a hand recount may be mandated. That will be onerous and miserable and ranked-choice voting will be blamed and tainted. Regardless of how you feel about the system, that’s a farce. And a shame. And, to top it off, if Adams loses in the primary, he could still run as a write-in or third-party candidate in the general.  

“In the current environment, people are willing and ready to doubt elections, especially if their candidate loses,” McDaniel says. “The language used by the Adams campaign and the unrelated error by the New York City Board of Elections poison the well. The Board of Elections truly messed up. This is a tragic story.” 

This article originally published on July 2 at 1:35 p.m.

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Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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8 Comments

  1. First off, the SF Dept of Elections slow walked IRV so that it would not be in place for the 2003 mayoral race. That, along with Brown’s electoral cheating for Newsom, might have very well changed SF and CA politics decisively.

    In 2004, the first IRV race, SF Dept of Elections did not have preliminary IRV results for DAYS. It took them a while to develop the workflow that delivers preliminary results on election night. There are hiccups every time they change voting machine vendors.

    That said, I opposed Prop A in 2001, IRV, because we were gaining evidence that runoffs offered excellent organizing opportunities. From 2000 to 2003, runoffs helped catalyze bottom up politics.

    Once that organizing, bury the primary hatchet and unite opportunity vanished, politics in San Francisco began to ratchet incessantly rightward to the point where we have the Board of Potted Plants that is ready to fold for the Mayor as their first gambit.

    Runoffs represented rich organizing opportunities for popular politics and their absence is sorely felt.
    Corruption has rampaged, progressives have been domesticated, tamed and used to run interference for the machine. IRV did not cause this. But IRV was one factor in the inability of San Franciscans to respond to this corrupt, non-responsive, rightward lurching neoliberal government.

  2. Thanks again for the insightful reporting. More information on electoral reform is available from Fair Vote and from National Popular Vote.
    I was impressed last election by the SF Department of Elections, and many other departments across the country. I’m sorry that NYC has a bad department, and I’m glad ours is good. Having been a poll worker for over 20 years now, I am amazed at how well our Election workers handle the complexities of elections. As an activist for electoral reform, I still believe that RCV (or IRV) is a good choice. It does not make up for some of the other corruptions and cronyism we face in SF government. However, I think the most important thing we all can do is pay attention, vote regularly and wisely, and be involved with our community organizations. That’s how to make democracy work. No type of electoral reform can make up for inattentive citizens — so let’s educate ourselves, and some more of us should definitely run for office. We need new people and new ideas!

    1. How’s that getting “involved with our community organizations” that are rarely democratically run and often ethically conflicted working out for our democracy here in the Mission?

      Ammiano in the 2000s was a faint echo of Ammiano in the 90s. Campos was a faint echo of Ammiano in the 2000s. Ronen is the barely audible attenuated echo of Campos, not all that different from Leslie Katz. These community organizations are leading us into the hands of our opponents and IRV is of no help.

  3. I’m not so sure this was just general incompetence. I have sat in on vote counting in the past. Granted, it wasn’t RCV. But the idea that you could “miscount” 150,000 test votes has a couple of holes in it.

    1. When I witnessed vote counting over a number of days, there was always a results report printed at the end of each day’s counting. At the start of counting the next day, another report was printed and results verified line by line. Absolute standard practice. Maybe not so for an incompetent elections department, but about as basic a security measure as you’ll ever find.

    2. The test ballots, back when I witnessed the counting, was called a logic and accuracy deck (also known as an L&A deck). Deck was used because they were punch card ballots. The purpose of the L&A deck was to make sure that votes were tabulated properly, and that a vote for A didn’t go to B, that if there was a vote for two race, the vote didn’t count if you voted for three, etc. if it’s to be believed this was a test deck, then why did the votes overwhelmingly go againstCandidate Adams? He went from something like ahead 150,000 to ahead 20,000. A logical L&A deck would not be constructed like that.

    My guess is there was a candidate favored by the so-called insiders, and this was a clumsy attempt to cheat for that candidate. You did say, Joe, that the NYC elections department is known for both corruption and incompetence.

    As for ranked choice voting, I’m not a fan of it by any means. But I agree that this is not a problem of RCV, but a problem with the el3ctions department.

  4. San Franciscans have as much right to complain about NYC as New Yorker’s do to complain about SF. None.

    1. Sir or madam —

      The point of this article, which was resplendently clear, wasn’t to “complain” about the wretched situation in New York City, but to point out that the situation there has nothing to do with ranked-choice voting.

      Yours,

      JE

  5. Way to go Joe!
    Sent this to my East Coast political family! Hey you should cover National politics too. Buffalo elected a “socialist” mayor without Ranked Choice! Go figure!

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