The presidential primary election campaign has moved on to other states, as the country watches to see how the hotly contested race for the Democratic nomination will play out. But in a race where every delegate is precious, New York's "Super Tuesday" primary raised concerns about how the city counts votes and how accurate are its unofficial tallies.
As expected, Hillary Clinton, New York's junior senator, won the state's Democratic primary. The question is by how much? Last month, the New York Times reported that in many districts where her opponent, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, was thought to have strong support, the unofficial election night tally reported that he got no votes -- not a single one. The findings created a stir. Election officials blamed human error for the inaccurate totals but skeptics and critics of the New York City Board of Elections were not all easily convinced.
Votes Called Into Question
A little more than a week after the February 5 primary in New York, the New York Times conducted a review of the unofficial votes tallies reported on primary night. Among over 6,000 election districts, the Times found 80 where Obama received zero votes and several others where Clinton received none. As the New York City Board of Elections conducted its official canvass of the vote, the Times found that in one district, where the results were initially reported as 141 to 0 in favor of Clinton, the election night count was actually 261 for Clinton to 136 for Obama. Instances similar to this were found in districts in Harlem and parts of Brooklyn where Obama had strong support.
In the wake of the article, other media sources weighed in. Mayor Michael Bloomberg referred to the instances as "voter fraud," an allegation he later recanted while still maintaining that the Board of Elections needed a major overhaul. The board attributed the problem to human error and emphasized the discrepancies inherent in unofficial counts. On February 26, it released the official canvass of the primary results, and while corrections provided Obama with a higher total vote count, he still came out on the losing end.
Human Error on Election Night
As New York State law requires, the Board of Elections releases unofficial results to the press on election night. This unofficial tabulation happens after the polls close, when inspectors at each election district open the backs of the city's Shoup lever machines-soon to be replaced by electronic voting machines-and record the vote tallies for each candidate. Poll inspectors, among the 30,000 poll workers that serve on Election Day at voting places, write the results by hand after already having put in a 17-hour long day, leaving, some say, plenty of room for mistakes to be made.
The inspectors record the vote totals on Return of Canvass sheets and hand the sheets to the police officer at that poll site. That officer then takes the sheet to his or her respective precinct office, where a police department employee enters the results into a computer. The computer records are then sent out to the Associated Press, which reports the numbers to the public that same night.
Each stage of this process provides an opportunity for error. Poll inspectors, many tired and strained after their long day, may incorrectly record vote totals on canvass sheets and police staff can make mistakes as they enter results into the computer system.
Some people theorize that in the primary this year, the design of the ballot may have added to the confusion. Clinton was first on the ballot, and while only three candidates were in the race at the time of the primary, six candidates remained on the ballot. Obama appeared fifth, just between John Edwards, who had dropped out, and Dennis Kucinich. At both stages, there is speculation that zero results intended for other candidates may have been mistakenly placed as Obama's count. There may have been fewer mistakes in recording Clinton's vote because of her position at the front of the line.
After each election the New York City Board of Elections recanvasses all of the votes, to come up with an official tally. This can take a few weeks to complete.
Teams from the Board of Elections, with members from both major political parties, open each machine and record the results to be tabulated. Representatives of all the campaigns are notified and may attend the recanvassing process on behalf of their candidates, intended to provide further oversight of the official tabulation.
In addition, the official count includes all the absentee ballots voters sent in to the Board of Elections, and affidavit (paper) ballots that are reviewed for validity by board staff. Campaign representatives also are allowed to monitor the counting process for all paper ballots.
Ultimately the official results from New York's primary didn't change the overall outcome. Clinton won the state with 1,068,496 votes, while Obama received 751,019 votes. Clinton was awarded 139 of the 231 delegates, tied to the primary results, which New York will send to the Democratic Nation Convention in August. New York's superdelegates will also vote at the convention. Though they are not bound to either candidate, most have pledged their support to Clinton.
She clearly carried New York City on primary day. Both unofficial and official counts show Clinton beat the Illinois senator by more than 100,000 votes. Vote totals changed after the official canvass, from 492,724 for Clinton and 380,008 for Obama on election night to Clinton's 527,941 votes against Obama's 413,898. Both Obama and Clinton gained over 30,000 votes after the official count, including all paper ballots that were counted, was completed.
A Counting Disconnect
The discrepancies in the unofficial results that were reported the day of the primary captured the attention of the media, the mayor and some good government organizations. Good government organization, Citizens Union (whose sister organization publishes Gotham Gazette) wrote to the governor to call for an investigation by New York's attorney general into the event and is still awaiting a reply. In response to media inquiries, the Board of Elections conducted its own investigation of the jurisdictions that recorded zero votes for Obama. The investigation attributed 35 of the zero counts to errors made by the poll inspector while recording the votes directly from the machines and 20 to errors made by police employees incorrectly entering numbers from the Return of Canvass sheets into the computer system. In the remaining 27 cases where Obama received zero votes, that count was correct: No one voted for him.
At a City Council Government Operations Committee hearing, Board of Elections representatives discussed how unofficial vote totals are tabulated. Asked how the number of errors this year compared to other years, the representatives acknowledged that records of those discrepancies were not available but that their "gut instinct" told them discrepancies this year did not appear to be more frequent than in past elections.
While unofficial counts are just that -- preliminary results, which are issued to the public through the press on election night -- many voters and others now seem suspicious of vote tallies provided by their governments. Some advocates argue that inaccurate vote tallies, even in unofficial counts, undermine the integrity of and public confidence in the voting process.
With more frequent reports of elections gone awry, Americans, including New Yorkers, may be paying more attention to what happens to their votes at different stages. While some may view the complaints by critics of the Board of Elections as misinformed or even overzealous, they are indicative of growing public concern about the election process and the need to provide the public with as much accurate and comprehensive information as possible. Recent election history has done little to boost voters' confidence in the voting process. As many states have switched to new methods of voting -- and with New York preparing to make a change -- voters remain skeptical of the system.
Andrea Senteno is program associate for Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette.
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