‘Nobody Will Ever Know Who Really Won’

The problem with trying to make the elections process longer and more complicated.

It takes something special to unite the New York Post and the New York Times, but the city’s Board of Elections has managed the feat, earning condemnation from the source of perhaps the worst-ever newspaper headline as well as the home of some of the best.

It’s not hard to figure out why. The agency has still not managed to finish counting the results of the Democratic mayoral primary that was held nearly two weeks ago. It promises results on Tuesday, after the three-day holiday weekend. Even worse, the board released a set of incorrect numbers last week that were apparently the result of forgetting to purge placeholder test ballots from the system.

Among the board’s excuses are that pandemic rules and the introduction of ranked-choice voting has simply overwhelmed its limited resources. But Maine, not exactly famed for its exceptional state governance, successfully managed in November to count more ranked-choice votes than were cast last month in New York. Maine officials were deeper in pandemic restrictions then and had to gather ballots across an area about the size of Hungary.

As anyone who has ever lived in New York can attest, the city and the state are political basket cases. Aside from perpetual bipartisan corruption in Albany, there’s the actual conduct of the elections. It took nearly six weeks for the state to sort out its 2020 results, and to no one’s surprise, the biggest malefactor was the city’s Board of Elections. The city board has long been known to be a patronage-powered disaster, but the city politicians and their hangers-on who benefit from the sinecures have so far defeated all efforts to clean house.

While former President Donald Trump has a more pressing interest in the race for another municipal office, he made certain not to miss the chance to exploit his native city’s electoral incompetence to advance his ongoing effort to convince supporters that he really won a second term last year. “Just like in the 2020 Presidential Election, it was announced overnight in New York City that vast irregularities and mistakes were made,” Trump said in a statement. “The fact is, based on what has happened, nobody will ever know who really won.”

In an email to her staff Thursday, the board’s acting director, Dawn Sandow, struck a Trumpy note herself. She wrote that despite “negative articles bashing this agency” they had thoroughly succeeded. “The amount of changes thrown at us to implement in a short period of time during a worldwide pandemic was unsurmountable and WE DID IT ALL SUCCESSFULLY!” Maybe grammatical fender-benders and claiming success in all-caps after humiliating failures are just New York folkways. But one thing is for sure: Some of the people on the front lines of the intensifying war on election legitimacy aren’t aware of the stakes of the conflict.

We know that Trump and his wrecking crew don’t care whether elections were well-conducted or not. The processes in Georgia and Arizona were clean, professional, and efficient, and both states have solid records for election administration. Trump wasn’t pressuring officials in Phoenix and Atlanta because of problems like the ones they have in New York, but because that’s where the votes he needed were. Trump tried the same kind of smash-and-grab job in Michigan. There were efforts in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Nevada as well. But even though there was no evidence to support the claims made by Trump and his fellow hijackers, the delayed counts in many places gave them precious time to make their claims.

Remember the mantra from Team Trump: “Just slow it down.” Slow down the count in individual precincts, slow down the county and state certifications, slow down Congress from affirming the results—slow down the process everywhere so Trump and company could find ways to sow doubt, coerce elections officials, and generally discredit the process. We can expect more of the same from the nationalist Republicans in the 2022 midterms and, depending on what becomes of the GOP, in 2024. Imagine this scenario: Republicans take both houses of Congress next year and multiple states enact new GOP-backed laws that make it easier for state officials to fool around with election returns. If Democrats win the presidency again, one imagines that Sen. Ted Cruz and his fellow electoral mayhem-makers would be happy to provide distraction and delay in Washington while their state-level counterparts wreck shop.

And yet, Democrats at every level are pushing hard to make the elections process longer and more complicated. As reflected in the For the People Act, Democratic priorities tend to focus on more early voting, more ways to vote, and more generous deadlines for submitting mail-in ballots. Believing that it will make it easier for people to vote—and trusting in their own myth that more turnout is always good for Democrats—many in the party are looking to make permanent the same conditions that made the 2020 count so dangerously prolonged. If those Democrats really understood the threat that Trump and his team pose to future elections, they would be doing just the opposite.

Americans had gotten used to early voting long before the pandemic. What is newer is the idea that it will take days or weeks to tabulate election results. It’s been a worsening problem in some states even before virus-suppressing regulations. California allows 17 days after the election for a properly postmarked ballot to be counted. It’s two weeks in Illinois, and 10 days in Alaska, D.C., Maryland, and Ohio. New York allows a week. Most states still require ballots be returned by Election Day, but Democrats are on the move in many states seeking more lax election rules. What madness. After seeing what Trump’s posse was able to do on the fly to try to steal an election, who could seriously propose making Election Day less decisive?

To shoot the rapids ahead of us, Americans will need study boats—not the garbage scows they float in New York. I don’t doubt Democrats’ sincerity in support of ballot access, but if they want to be taken seriously as guardians of democracy, they had better make decisive, efficient elections a priority too.