The New York City mayor’s race plunged into chaos on Tuesday night when the city Board of Elections released a new tally of votes in the Democratic mayoral primary, and then removed the tabulations from its website after citing a “discrepancy.”
The results released earlier in the day had suggested that the race between Eric Adams and his two closest rivals had tightened significantly.
But just a few hours after releasing the preliminary results, the elections board issued a cryptic tweet revealing a “discrepancy” in the report, saying that it was working with its “technical staff to identify where the discrepancy occurred.”
By Tuesday evening, the tabulations had been taken down, replaced by a new advisory that the ranked-choice results would be available “starting on June 30.”
Then, around 10:30 p.m., the board finally released a statement, explaining that it had failed to remove sample ballot images used to test its ranked-choice voting software. When the board ran the program, it counted “both test and election night results, producing approximately 135,000 additional records,” the statement said. The ranked-choice numbers, it said, would be tabulated again.
The extraordinary sequence of events seeded further confusion about the outcome, and threw the closely watched contest into a new period of uncertainty at a consequential moment for the city.
For the Board of Elections, which has long been plagued by dysfunction and nepotism, this was its first try at implementing ranked-choice voting on a citywide scale. Skeptics had expressed doubts about the board’s ability to pull off the process, though it is used successfully in other cities.
Under ranked-choice voting, voters can list up to five candidates on their ballots in preferential order. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of first-choice votes in the first round, the winner is decided by a process of elimination: As the lower-polling candidates are eliminated, their votes are reallocated to whichever candidate those voters ranked next, and the process continues until there is a winner.
The Board of Elections released preliminary, unofficial ranked-choice tabulations on Tuesday afternoon, showing that Mr. Adams — who had held a significant advantage on primary night — was narrowly ahead of Kathryn Garcia in the ballots cast in person during early voting or on Primary Day. Maya D. Wiley, who came in second place in the initial vote count, was close behind in third place. The board then took down the results and disclosed the discrepancy.
The results may well be scrambled again: Even after the Board of Elections sorts through the preliminary tally, it must count around 124,000 Democratic absentee ballots. Once they are tabulated, the board will take the new total that includes them and run a new set of ranked-choice elimination rounds, with a final result not expected until mid-July.
Some Democrats, bracing for an acrimonious new chapter in the race, are concerned that the incremental release of results by the Board of Elections — and the discovery of an error — may stir distrust of ranked-choice voting and of the city’s electoral system more broadly.
In a statement late Tuesday night, Ms. Wiley laced into the Board of Elections, calling the error “the result of generations of failures that have gone unaddressed,” and adding: “Sadly, it is impossible to be surprised.”
“Today, we have once again seen the mismanagement that has resulted in a lack of confidence in results, not because there is a flaw in our election laws, but because those who implement it have failed too many times,” she said. “The B.O.E. must now count the remainder of the votes transparently and ensure the integrity of the process moving forward.”
Ms. Garcia said the release of the inaccurate tally was “deeply troubling and requires a much more transparent and complete explanation.”
“Every ranked choice and absentee vote must be counted accurately so that all New Yorkers have faith in our democracy and our government,” she said. “I am confident that every candidate will accept the final results and support whomever the voters have elected.”
And Mr. Adams noted the “unfortunate” error by the Board of Elections and emphasized the importance of handling election results correctly.
“It is critical that New Yorkers are confident in their electoral system, especially as we rank votes in a citywide election for the first time,” he said in a statement released on Tuesday night. “We appreciate the board’s transparency and acknowledgment of their error. We look forward to the release of an accurate, updated simulation, and the timely conclusion of this critical process.”
If elected, Mr. Adams would be the city’s second Black mayor, after David N. Dinkins. Some of Mr. Adams’s supporters have already cast the ranked-choice process as an attempt to disenfranchise voters of color, an argument that intensified among some backers on Tuesday afternoon as the race had appeared to tighten, and is virtually certain to escalate should he lose his primary night lead to Ms. Garcia, who is white.
Surrogates for Mr. Adams have suggested without evidence that an apparent ranked-choice alliance between Ms. Garcia and another rival, Andrew Yang, could amount to an attempt to suppress the votes of Black and Latino New Yorkers; Mr. Adams himself claimed that the alliance was aimed at preventing a Black or Latino candidate from winning the race.
In the final days of the race, Ms. Garcia and Mr. Yang campaigned together across the city, especially in neighborhoods that are home to sizable Asian American communities, and appeared together on campaign literature.
To advocates of ranked-choice voting, the round-by-round shuffling of outcomes is part of the process of electing a candidate with broad appeal. But if Ms. Garcia or Ms. Wiley were to prevail, the process — which was approved by voters in a 2019 ballot measure — would likely attract fresh scrutiny, with some of Mr. Adams’s backers and others already urging a new referendum on it.
By Tuesday night, though, it was the Board of Elections that was attracting ire from seemingly all corners.
Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s former public advocate who now runs Citizens Union, a good-government group, warned that “the entire country is watching” the Board of Elections. “New Yorkers deserve elections, and election administrators, that they can have the utmost faith in,” Ms. Gotbaum added.
A comparison between first-place vote totals released on primary night and those released on Tuesday offered some insight into how the 135,000 erroneous votes were distributed. The bottom four candidates received a total of 42,000 new votes, roughly four times their actual vote total; the number of write-in ballots also skyrocketed to 17,516 from 1,336. Mr. Adams and Mr. Yang received the highest number of new votes.
It was not known, however, how the test votes were reallocated during the ranked-choice tabulations, making it impossible to determine how they affected the preliminary results that were released and then retracted.
When accurate vote counts are in place, it is difficult, but not unheard-of for a trailing candidate in a ranked-choice election to eventually win the race through later rounds of voting — that happened in Oakland, Calif., in 2010, and nearly occurred in San Francisco in 2018.
The winner of New York’s Democratic primary, who is almost certain to become the city’s next mayor, will face Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels, who won the Republican primary.
According to the now-withdrawn tabulation released Tuesday, Ms. Wiley, a former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, nearly made it to the final round. She finished closely behind Ms. Garcia, the former sanitation commissioner, before being eliminated in the penultimate round of the preliminary exercise.
After the count of in-person ballots last week, Ms. Garcia had trailed Ms. Wiley by about 2.8 percentage points. Asked if she had been in touch with Ms. Wiley’s team, Ms. Garcia suggested there had been staff-level conversations.
“The campaigns have been speaking to each other,” Ms. Garcia said in a phone call on Tuesday afternoon, saying the two candidates had not yet spoken directly. “Hopefully we don’t have to step in with attorneys. But it is about really ensuring that New York City’s voices are heard.”
Ms. Wiley ran well to the left of Ms. Garcia on a number of vital policy matters, including around policing and on some education questions. Either candidate would be the first woman elected mayor of New York, and Ms. Wiley would be the city’s first Black female mayor.
Mr. Adams, a former police captain and a relative moderate on several key issues, was a non-starter for many progressive voters who may have preferred Ms. Garcia and her focus on competence over any especially ideological message.
But early results suggested that Mr. Adams had significant strength among working-class voters of color, and some traction among white voters with moderate views.
City Councilman I. Daneek Miller, an Adams supporter who is pressing for a new referendum on ranked-choice voting, suggested in a text message on Tuesday that the system had opened the door to “an attempt to eliminate the candidate of moderate working people and traditionally marginalized communities,” as he implicitly criticized the Yang-Garcia alliance.
“It is incumbent on us now to address the issue of ranked voting and how it is being weaponized against a wide portion of the public,” said Mr. Miller, the co-chair of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus on the City Council.
Other close observers of the election separately expressed discomfort with the decision to release a ranked-choice tally without accounting for absentee ballots.
“There is real danger that voters will come to believe a set of facts about the race that will be disproven when all votes are in,” said Ben Greenfield, a senior survey data analyst at Change Research, which conducted polling for a pro-Garcia PAC. “The risk is that this could take a system that’s already new and confusing and increase people’s sense of mistrust.”
Dana Rubinstein, Jeffery C. Mays, Anne Barnard, Andy Newman and Mihir Zaveri contributed reporting.