The near-meltdown in the vote count for the New York Democratic primary featuring scandal-tarred congressman Charlie Rangel should serve as a warning siren about what could happen in this November’s national election. It’s not just voter fraud we have to worry about. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the fraud ends and the incompetence begins. The Rangel fiasco reminds us that the United States has, as Walter Dean Burnham, the nation’s leading political scientist, put it, “the developed world’s sloppiest election systems.” And New York City is no unsophisticated backwater. The troubles in the Rangel race began on Election Night, June 26. The voting-machine totals put down on paper had the incumbent beating his challenger, state senator Adriano Espaillat, by a comfortable 2,300 votes in a Harlem district that is now equally divided between black and Hispanic populations. But after the voting-machine totals were sent to a computer, the Rangel lead melted to 802 votes; a partially completed recount has boosted his lead to 945 votes.
The New York City Board of Elections claimed the errors were the fault of New York police officers who had laboriously entered the election totals from paper records into a computer system. A board spokeswoman claims the men in blue entered zeroes for one-seventh of the precincts where votes were cast. The NYPD fires back that the zeroes were entered because the canvassing sheets filled out by poll workers were illegible or had not listed a final total for each sheet. Indeed, reporters have inspected several sheets where the results had been erased, or deciphering the writing was at best guesswork.
“I thought that stuff happened in Florida or Mississippi somewhere, but not here in New York State,” Mayor Mike Bloomberg lashed out in anger this week. “The Board of Elections is broken. We should just shut it down and build a new system that works for all New Yorkers and that is transparent for all.” He said its officials were incompetent and the system they ran “about as corruptible as system as anybody could conceivably design.” Not surprisingly, Espaillat is even more enraged. He has gone before a judge demanding a new election, given the irregularities he has found. He conceded defeat on Election Night only to see his 10-percentage-point loss shrink to almost nothing in the next day or so. Espaillat calls the election “a phantom procedure” and doesn’t think everything was bumbling or an accident. He notes that the Board of Elections ordered many bilingual poll workers to man precincts with few Hispanics on voting day. He said some of his own relatives weren’t even listed as registered voters.