The recent bungling of New York City’s mayoral primary has brought national attention to longstanding problems with its Board of Elections. Today, election problems are contained within state lines, but New York City’s electoral dysfunction could trigger a national crisis if a proposal called the National Popular Vote interstate compact (NPV) ever takes effect.
The chaos in New York City stems from a mix of general ineptitude, such as the 135,000 test ballots accidentally included in initial results, and dubious policy choices, like the three weeks allowed for absentee ballots to be received or “cured” that delayed results and frustrated voters.
Complicating matters was New York City’s use of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), which allows voters to rank all of the candidates on their ballot. If no candidate receives a majority of first-place rankings, the last-place candidate’s votes are eliminated and transferred to whomever those voters ranked second. The process continues until one candidate has a majority.
Thankfully the chaos of New York City’s election problems only affected the Big Apple. Primary elections held on the same day in upstate New York to choose candidates for mayor in Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse, and other cities were not affected because those were separate elections held in separate jurisdictions.
The same dynamic works in presidential elections because of the Electoral College. Problems in one state can’t affect the results in another because each state awards its electors based only on the votes of its own residents. NPV would change this, with states in the compact trying to count votes across fifty-one separate state-level elections and then appoint electors for the candidate deemed to have received the most votes nationally.
New York City’s election chaos demonstrates a key shortcoming of the compact: it requires member states to trust that the vote totals released by every single other state are all accurate and final. As the extra 135,000 votes included by New York City’s Board of Elections demonstrate, that’s not necessarily the case.
And that massive 135,000 vote error was not unusual. New York has made even bigger errors in vote totals for president. In each of the last four presidential elections, New York’s Certificate of Ascertainment (the document NPV’s lobbyists and advocates identify as the best official source for presidential vote totals) has been missing between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of votes. In 2012, for example, it was missing about 415,000 votes. That’s far more votes than separated Kennedy and Nixon in the 1960 election (historians still argue over which candidate actually received more popular votes).
An even bigger problem for NPV is the use of RCV in presidential elections. The compact assumes every state will provide only a single vote total for every candidate, but RCV can produce two – the initial result before votes are transferred between candidates and final results after the vote transfer process is complete.
Officials in states using RCV would have to decide whether to report their initial or the final results as the ones for use by NPV states. They could also report both sets of results, leaving it in the hands of officials in NPV states (and the courts) to decide which numbers to use. In a close national election, the decisions made by these state officials could decide who wins.
Imagine if a major party candidate finished behind a third-party candidate in a state, as happened in both Maine and Utah in 1992. If those states used RCV, hundreds of thousands or even millions of votes could be erased for the Democratic or Republican candidate (just as Maya Wiley saw more than a quarter million votes disappear after she was eliminated by the RCV process in the New York City primary). If erasing massive numbers of votes under NPV changed the winner, national outrage would be sure to follow.
New York’s poor track record of counting ballots and its use of RCV are just the most recent and visible demonstrations of the sort of chaos that will occur if NPV goes into effect. States in the compact would struggle to aggregate vote totals from 51 separate state-level elections held with different election systems and varying degrees of competence. If you think New York City’s election debacle was bad, imagine how much worse it would be if this sort of local election dysfunction could affect the whole country.
Sean Parnell is senior legislative director for Save Our States, an organization that defends the Electoral College.