Election Experts & The New York Voting Fiasco

Something awful happens. Do you immediately jump to conspiracy thinking? Or do you first suspect incompetence? I first suspect incompetence (unless there’s strong evidence to the contrary, such as two planes crashing into the Twin Towers on 9-11).

I am not an expert on voter fraud but I do like the challenge of reading what the experts say, and then comparing their views with one another and with popular accounts.

I notice that many skeptics of the 2020 election results are seizing on New York City’s latest vote counting problems as evidence that the voter fraud experts quoted in the media are not up to snuff.

A friend says:

It’s pretty clear that the experts who claim there was no substantial result changing fraud in the 2020 presidential election fail from a failure of imagination. They are applying their standards of the past to things which may have been without precedent. The fact that 135,000 votes run as a test were maintained in the computerized total and would have remained undiscovered except that Adams started questioning them (and was roundly criticized for doing that) says it all. I am not saying that Trump won the election. All I am saying is that those who unqualifiedly say nothing happened are expressing opinions based on their own preconceptions and not necessarily fact based. That specific claims of fraud were debunked don’t seem to get anywhere near the issues that occurred in the NYC mayoral election.

You were appropriately skeptical of the Trump claims of fraud, but you have uncritically accepted the assertions of the election integrity’s defenders. Of course that is inconsistent with the attacks on the 2016 results in which Trump won and with the criticisms of computerized voting which Democratic senators raised a year before the 2020 election. The experts you relied on may be right on particular claims by those who challenge the results, but on the broader claim that the election in fact reflected the will of the voters, they might be wrong.

When I looked at the most prominent claims for massive voter fraud in the 2020 American elections, I found that all the claims fell apart upon examination. I don’t claim that voter fraud has not played a significant role in American elections, rather, I propose that all arguments that voter fraud has played a large role in recent American elections fall apart upon examination. I’m waiting to read a strong case for massive voter fraud in 2020.

“Voter fraud” means many things to many people. For example, “voter fraud” is often used to describe mistakes that are endemic to all large human enterprises. You show me any activity that is largely staffed by amateurs and involves counting millions of pieces of paper, and you will always find lots of mistakes. Mistakes in processing ballots are not voter fraud. Taking weeks to count votes is not evidence of voter fraud.

It seems to me that there is one definition of voter fraud that makes more sense than the others — that voter fraud is a crime. The recent mistake in the counting of the New York election is not, I believe, a crime. I am unaware of any evidence that the mistaken counting of 135,000 test votes would have remained undiscovered except that Eric Adams challenged the count.

Regarding this: “It’s pretty clear that the experts who claim there was no substantial result changing fraud in the 2020 presidential election fail from a failure of imagination.” All the expert analyses I have read were responses to allegations of voter fraud that did not add up. I’m not sure what role imagination should have in this type of analysis. If someone imagines ways that voter fraud might be massive, that could be the beginning of a useful investigation, but to say something important, one needs to uncover evidence supporting your imagination. Fantasies about voter fraud in and of themselves and without any supporting evidence have no importance and they need no analysis.

“They are applying their standards of the past to things which may have been without precedent.” No, they were examining claims of voter fraud in 2020 and finding that these claims fell apart upon examination.

Mail-in balloting is not without precedence in America. Five states do voting exclusively by mail and we don’t have evidence that these states have higher rates of voter fraud. There may be such evidence, but it has not been presented as yet.

“All I am saying is that those who unqualifiedly say nothing happened are expressing opinions based on their own preconceptions and not necessarily fact based.”

I am unaware of any voter fraud experts who say nothing happened. Instead, they say the allegations that voter fraud happened on a massive scale do not hold up to scrutiny. They say that the evidence does not indicate massive voter fraud.

It shouldn’t be hard to make a case for voter fraud in 2020. Simply point out counties and states where the voter returns were anomalous. I am unaware of such counties and states. In 2018 and 2020, there was a 2% swing against the Republicans in the suburbs. That little swing accounts for the election results in 2018 and 2020.

Regarding “on the broader claim that the election in fact reflected the will of the voters, they might be wrong”, I’d just like to see evidence for this claim. Everyone might be wrong on anything. We all have to make judgments based on imperfect information. I find it fun to try to make sense of imperfect information.

I agree with this analysis by Philip Bump of the Washington Post:

This is the first year New York City will use ranked-choice voting to pick its leaders. So far, it isn’t going great.

The Democratic primary election for mayor was held last week, on June 22, with initial results favoring Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams by a healthy margin. But ranked-choice voting means determining the winner of the primary will require several rounds of vote-counting. Each voter was able to pick up to five candidates who they hoped might win. If their preferred candidate is eliminated by being the lowest vote-getter in a round, the voter’s ballot shifts to their next preference down the list, until either the race is down to two candidates or until that voter’s ballot lists no more viable candidates.

For some inexplicable reason, the city’s Board of Elections (BOE) decided on Tuesday to run through how that ranked-choice system would work using the ballots it had received and counted. That tally showed Adams’s lead narrowing — and the second-place slot shifting from lawyer and activist Maya Wiley to former city sanitation director Kathryn Garcia. But while that trial run of ranked-choice voting did reveal generally how the eventual results might shift, it didn’t offer much insight into how that shift might occur, given that there are still more than 124,000 absentee ballots to count. That’s about 10 percent of all the votes cast — an obviously significant number.

Then things got worse. It turns out that the results the city released also included a number of dummy ballots, used to test the system — ballots that should not have been included in the initial count. The mistake was caught soon after the trial-run results were announced, so the Board of Elections ended up pulling its totals and announcing its mistake.

No observer of New York City politics was surprised to learn that the Board of Elections had messed things up. It’s common knowledge the board is at best inept, as a report from the city’s local paper documented in late October. The city’s politics broadly are byzantine and dishonest, often relying on a system of patronage that those in power — generally the system’s beneficiaries — are loath to challenge. It’s an embarrassing situation, but usually one that does its embarrassing thing out of the spotlight of national attention. A mayor’s race in the country’s most populous city, though, tends to draw a spotlight.

It will still be a few weeks before we know who won the primary, given those absentee ballots (which are likely to aid Garcia) need to be counted. But in the meantime, the snafu at the BOE has been seized upon by allies of former president Donald Trump as evidence that elections in Democratic areas are corrupt and dishonest, just as Trump has been claiming for months…

Look, it is obviously the case that there is no connection between reality and Trump’s insistence that the 2020 election was stolen. For nearly eight months, he and his allies have been trying to claim rampant fraud occurred and they have the evidence to prove it, without actually providing credible evidence and without offering any reason to assume that the claims of rampant fraud are worth taking seriously.

But it is nonetheless worth explaining why this argument is no better.

There is an apt analogy between what happened in New York City on Tuesday and the 2020 election. That error was akin to the miscounted ballots in Michigan’s Antrim County, an error that election administrators quickly caught and corrected. In that case, a change to the ballot wasn’t accounted for properly, so vote tallies were shifted between candidates. It’s as though you announced the order of horses in a race and, at the last second, slotted a new horse in the middle, shifting all the numbers. Suddenly, all the existing bets get wonky — a correctable but embarrassing mistake.

According to the BOE — which, again, is a mess, so assume this might also change — the mistake on Tuesday was similarly technical. It was a thing that should not have happened, but did, and officials announced the mistake and are correcting it. It was not some effort to throw the election. Unlike in Antrim County, these weren’t even intended to be final results! If the idea was to somehow allocate a number of ballots to all the candidates and hope no one would notice, it seems weird to inject them in a preliminary trial run of the results.

Damon Linker writes:

With its massive screw-up in counting and reporting preliminary results in New York City’s Democratic primary for mayor, the city’s Board of Elections has managed to vindicate the self-serving and politically corrosive mendacity of Donald Trump.

No, reporting hugely inaccurate preliminary results in the Ranked Choice Voting primary held last week doesn’t demonstrate that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump — or that, as the former president continues to claim, voter fraud was rampant in the swing states that delivered the election to Democrat Joe Biden. But there was always a more sweeping and more dangerous claim underlying those baseless assertions — namely, that American elections in general are corrupt and unreliable, producing untrustworthy results. That’s what Trump alleged during the summer and fall of 2020, before any ballots has been cast or counted. And that’s what the shambolic Democratic primary in New York City has now vindicated.

The primary involved only Democrats. It pioneered the use of RCV in order (supposedly) to deliver fairer, more representative outcomes. The Board of Elections is overseen by bipartisan commissioners. For all of these reasons, last week’s vote should have served as a demonstration of what a clean and corruption-free election looks like. Instead, it’s shown that NYC’s BOE is too incompetent to be trusted with counting the votes. And the shadow of its bungling will haunt whatever results it announces going forward, opening the door to fully justified challenges to the outcome.

From Politico:

NEW YORK — For months, President Donald Trump has made baseless claims of voter fraud, insisted he would only lose an election that was “rigged” and said he is rushing a Supreme Court nominee ahead of a potential legal challenge to the results.

Democrats and published media reports have widely disputed his assertions and officials have promised a valid voting process, despite the unprecedented challenges brought by the pandemic.

Then along came the New York City Board of Elections.

The notoriously dysfunctional entity has given ammo to Trump’s charges by mailing some 100,000 ballots with erroneously marked return envelopes to voters in Brooklyn. The latest screw-up from the bipartisan board — whose members are appointed by local party leaders and approved by the City Council as one of the last vestiges of old-school machine politics — became an immediate talking point for Republicans….

Susan Lerner, of the good government group Common Cause New York, said the president is misrepresenting the issue at stake. Rather than providing an opportunity to cast extra votes for his opponent Joe Biden — as the president has claimed mail-in voting would do — the mix-up in Brooklyn would have the opposite effect by bringing vote totals down if it is not remedied.

“Not only is the info being used in a negative way, it is being misused,” she said. “The problem is not what the White House is making it out to be.”

The sanctity of mail-in ballots is not the only uncertainty facing New York City voters ahead of the momentous presidential election in November. The board hasn’t even instructed voters on how much postage to use for sending their ballots in, according to city and state officials. And last week, Ryan indicated a final count of all the votes may not come until well into December.

A friend says:

The failure of imagination is that as far as I know none of experts considered that test ballots, which may have been entered favoring a particular candidate, were not deleted but added to the legitimate votes. I had no idea that election boards ran test ballots, but experts on elections who claim to know every aspect of elections should have known about it. That’s what I mean by failure of imagination. The biggest experts on election law are Sabato and Hasen, I am unaware that either of these persons considered the possibility..

The issue is not the 2% swing of voters, but if there was such a swing at all. A relatively small number of ballots such as those in New York “mistakenly” left in the voting machines could account for the swing. Instead the experts rely on polling (which is notoriously inaccurate) to confirm the numbers which under their application of knowing how past election fraud works, they categorically denied. That is their preconceived notions, ignoring a possible wholly new method. Most lay persons, including those who follow elections, such as you, have no idea how such a thing can happen and can’t conceive of it, but the experts should. The difference between intelligence and wisdom is that the wise person can foresee consequences that the smart person cannot. The experts have proven themselves with their opinions to be smart, but not wise.

Anyone remotely acquainted with American mail-in ballots knows that voters are sent test ballots. Anyone with voting expertise would know the potential for test ballots to get counted as real ballots (as I understand it, the experts say there is no evidence that this has happened in significant numbers). What happened in New York was a test run of a system never used before. It did not purport to be a final count.

Larry Sabato and Richard Hasen would not rank in the top ten of voter fraud experts, but they do get interviewed a lot in the media, just as Carl Sagan was often interviewed about space, but he had no significance to the discipline of astronomy. Even Larry Sabato and Richard Hasen know about test ballots and they know that there are infinite number of mistakes that vote counters can make. There is no evidence that a “relatively small number of ballots such as those in New York “mistakenly” left in the voting machines account[ed] for the swing” to the Democrats in 2018 and 2020. Contrary to this assertion, “Instead the experts rely on polling (which is notoriously inaccurate) to confirm the numbers which under their application of knowing how past election fraud works, they categorically denied”, academic studies of claims of voter fraud that I have read do not mention polling.

In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it seems to me that a 2% swing in the suburbs against Republicans accounts for the 2018 and 2020 election results.

“That is their preconceived notions, ignoring a possible wholly new method.”

There is nothing new in sending Americans test ballots though there is something new in the number of mail-in ballots and test ballots mailed out in 2020. I am unaware of any evidence that either of these produced increased voter fraud in 2020.

A friend says:

I don’t think Trump won the election, but I do think it is possible he won. As you know a swing of under a total of a hundred thousand votes in certain states would have given Trump an electoral college victory. If in a relatively small election with a relatively small turnout in a community that watches its elections closely, you can “inadvertently” add in 135,000 votes, it certainly raises the possibility that the experts you relied on might be wrong… These experts claim to have some sort of superior knowledge about election procedures so that they can opine on whether the election is open to question. If they limited their conclusions by stating that there may be other means of committing fraud which may have occurred which we aren’t considering, that would be one thing. If they specifically said that although registrars testing the machines with test ballots there is no way that could end up skewing election results that would be something else. But if you are relying on them to conclusively state that there was no fraud, that seems to be a big stretch.

You can’t conclusively prove there is no voter fraud. You can conclusively prove that shoddy arguments for massive voter fraud are shoddy.

James Joyner writes:

The drive to make voting easier, which I support, has had the pernicious effect of making it less trustworthy.

Eric Adams seemingly won a plurality of the vote on Election Day. But, of course, Election Day no longer exists. Some people vote early. And a lot of people, effectively, vote late because they can send their absentee ballot in on the last day and we allot an inordinate amount of time for ballots to arrive.

We used to get election results almost immediately. It was rare that we went to bed on Election Day without knowing the outcome of the race. Now, we’re expected to wait days—in this case, an entire month!—for results. Yet, over the same evolution, we have become to getting our information instantaneously.

Even absent malfeasance such as the Republican Party leadership’s attempt to falsely claim the 2020 Presidential election was somehow stolen, partisans are not going to trust a system in which their guy seemingly has the lead and then watch it slowly disappear through a mysterious process in which new votes are found and old ones are thrown out because errors are discovered.

Incompetent administration—as seen here an in the most recent run of the Iowa Caucuses—certainly don’t help. It just feeds the conspiracy theorists.

And the addition of ranked choice voting to this particular contest—which, again, I support in theory—complicates matters further. While there’s no obvious reason why a computer program can’t eliminate the votes for the bottom candidate and reallocate second place votes and so on and so forth, this particular election board somehow didn’t get its act together ahead of time. And, again, it’s feeding the conspiracists.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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