Charlie Rangel Race Becomes Another Election Fiasco

Congressman Charlie Rangel won his primary. Probably. Very likely. You never know, but it certainly looks like he's ahead. Perhaps. Although one never can tell ...

The city's election officials have screwed up their vote-counting mission and the democratic process has dwindled off into head-scratching confusion. This is not exactly startling news. If there is one thing you can absolutely be sure about in a New York City election, it's that there will be screw-ups. It's lucky this isn't a swing state. If the fate of the republic depended on New York's ability to come up with an accurate vote count, we'd have Gore-Bush every time. Compared to us, Dade County, Florida tallies its ballots with the mathematical precision of a fine watch.

Why does this happen? We have equipment problems, resource problems, and weird bureaucratic problems: The vote tallies, for example, are given to cops who drive them to the local station house, where the results are then punched into the police computer and then made public.

"Why is the Police Department doing this instead of the Board of Elections, or, I don't know, temporary employees," said veteran political consultant Jerry Skurnik.

Fortunately, New York has very few serious elections and most races are decided by huge margins that provide very wide margins for error. In December of 2010, for instance, the city board announced that since the election a month earlier, it had discovered nearly 200,000 additional votes. "After a 16-hour day there's room for error," a spokeswoman for the board told the Times.

This was in the first year of the new computerized voting system that was supposed to make things more efficient. Fortunately, Andrew Cuomo beat his inept Republican opponent almost 2-1, and nobody noticed.

Fast forward to last week, when New York held its primaries for Senate and Congress last week. Not for president -- that was in April. Not for the state legislature -- that's in September. The state legislators, who arrange these things, like to make things as oblique as possible. The perfect election, by their standards, is one in which nobody turns out to vote except precinct leaders and members of the incumbents' families.

They came pretty close last week. Okay, I'm exaggerating. But in the most widely publicized contest -- the race in which Rangel was challenged by state Senator Adriano Espaillat, the turnout was around 14 percent.

On election night, initial vote tallies showed Rangel ahead of Espaillat by about 20 points. Much celebration in the Harlem home of Rangel's machine. Sadness in northern Manhattan, where Espaillat issued a concession.

Then time passed. Rangel's overwhelming lead got less and less whelming. By the next day, he was down to two points. By Friday, Espaillat was in court, a familiar post-election refuge for New York candidates.

Right now it all seems to depend on the affidavit ballots -- the ones people file on paper if there election officials at the polls can't find their name on the voting lists, or there's some other problem. This will take a long time, because of the Fourth of July holiday and because we're talking about the Board of Elections.

The election was, on the one hand, about nostalgia (Rangel is 82, looking for a 22nd term) versus reform (he was censured by the House in 2010 for ethics violations). But to be honest, the real-world battle was almost entirely ethnic. African-American politicians did not want to see the Harlem-based 13th Congressional District slip out from under their control. Dominican-Americans wanted Espaillat because they felt it was time to see one of their own in the Halls of Congress.

It seems unlikely that Espaillat will get enough votes to take the seat. Although it's also possible the board will discover additional mistakes. Or that a pigeon flew off with some of the results and used them to build a nest. Around here, you never know.