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The Trailer: Reformers had high hopes for New York's election. The board of elections didn't help.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/1/2021 David Weigel

In this edition: What New York's mess means for the rest of us, the 2016 election makes a comeback in Ohio, and the Supreme Court does what everyone expected it to do.

There's no such thing as a coincidence. The fact that you are reading this newsletter means that you are energetically aligned with The Trailer.

While you're energetically aligned: It's the halfway mark of 2021, so send in any questions about elections, democracy and other important things to david.weigel@washpost.com, and we'll answer them next week. Just use “Trailer FAQ” in the subject line.

a group of young men standing next to a building: Board of Elections workers arrive at a polling site during the New York City mayoral primary election last month. (Photo by Michael Nagle/Bloomberg News) © Michael Nagle/Bloomberg Board of Elections workers arrive at a polling site during the New York City mayoral primary election last month. (Photo by Michael Nagle/Bloomberg News)

New Yorkers can say a lot about their primary debacle, but they can't say they didn't see it coming. Three years ago, when momentum was building for a new ranked-choice voting system, a government reform commission looked at two fundamental questions: How could they make it work, and what might wreck it? Easy: The city's board of elections, dogged by “poor poll-worker training” and other basic problems.

“Whether the BOE and its staff can resolve these issues and other operational challenges is a significant open question,” wrote the 12 members of the charter revision commission. “Errors in administration could undermine public confidence in the election system.”

It could, and it did. 

As they wait for clarity from the June 22 primaries, liberals and government reformers are trying to extricate the city's new voting system, which they mostly support, from its incompetent election officials, who they can't seem to get rid of. It was predictable that the board would bungle its count, and just as predictable that Republicans including Donald Trump would cast this as chaotic election-rigging. That, they say, would have happened anyway.

“I think that the unfortunate national attention paid to this human error made by the board is going to be a silver lining,” said Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause in New York, and a leader of the coalition that put ranked-choice voting in place. “There's going to be a much broader and deeper discussion about the need to reform our politically run election system in New York.”

This year's errors were especially confounding. Plenty of cities, along with the state of Maine, have embraced ranked-choice voting, designed to elect the candidate most broadly acceptable to the most people. But none of them released results before all ballots were counted, as New York's BOE did. Most election commissions have test ballots on hand; they do not accidentally add them to an official vote count, as happened in New York on Tuesday.

The difference between Maine and New York City is an elections board that has infuriated candidates for years. The New York Board of Elections is an oddity, enshrined in the state's constitution to be not nonpartisan, but bipartisan. Election boards are required to have “equal representation of the two political parties” that get the most votes, which, since the constitution was ratified, has meant Democrats and Republicans.

Both parties' leaderships have supported that arrangement, and state Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs defended it in the immediate aftermath of the board's error. And criticism of the BOE, from Democratic candidates to the New York Post's editorial board, has focused less on the partisan makeup of the board than its penchant for nepotism and incompetence.

“The notion that somehow, if we didn't have ranked-choice voting, it would be smoother, is one I don't agree with,” New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said on a Wednesday morning call with reporters. “If we didn't have ranked-choice voting, we probably still wouldn't know who won.”

Williams, who had only token opposition and won easily last week, is one of relatively few New York Democratic candidates who knows how their primary ended. But he and the rest of New York's left have been trying to change the election system for years, an effort supercharged — like much of New York's Democratic politics — by the 2016 presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Clinton won that primary, but the state's election laws and the conduct of the BOE had not been so closely scrutinized in years. Sanders, a native Brooklynite, learned that New York required voters to register as members of a political party six months before its primary, a rule that benefited machine politicians.

“We have a system here in New York where independents can’t get involved in the Democratic primary, where young people who have not previously registered and want to register just can’t do it,” Sanders said bitterly at one of the massive rallies that closed his New York primary campaign. That was before about 200,000 voters were unknowingly struck from the rolls, most of them registered Democrats. That fed into the idea that the primary was rigged, as even Clinton-endorsing Mayor Bill de Blasio warned about “the perception that numerous voters may have been disenfranchised.”

Sanders decisively lost the primary, running weakest in New York City and its closest suburbs as he carried most of Upstate New York. But a left-wing backlash to this combination of strictness and incompetence helped insurgent candidates win in 2018, replacing a centrist coalition in the state Senate with a liberal Democratic majority. It quickly passed voting changes, while an overlapping group of activists formed Rank the Vote NYC, a coalition designed to get ranked-choice voting on the ballot and get voters to pass it — which they did, with 74 percent of the vote.

The reform goals of Democrats and Republicans, never very close, got further away in 2020. The left's priority was maximizing voter access, with a successful election defined not by when the vote was counted, but by how fair and accurate it is. That's one of the appeals of ranked-choice voting; it could replace the city's two-round runoff system, consolidating its primary into a single day. And it was a reason Democrats welcomed a week-long grace period for absentee ballots, to prevent anyone who sent in a valid ballot at the last minute to be disenfranchised.

The right, irrelevant right now in both state and city politics, took another view — one informed by the BOE's incompetence. In 2020, even after New York delayed its presidential primary to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic, the primary was beset by delays and screw-ups. 

Tens of thousands of absentee ballot packages were sent too late for voters to use them. At least 100,000 packages were stamped with the wrong address on return envelopes. A tight House primary took more than six weeks to be settled, with incumbent Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) declaring victory before the count ended, and accusing her top challenger of sounding like Trump, who at that moment was insisting that the presidential election would be fixed.

“They have no idea what's going on,” Trump tweeted as the count continued. “Rigged election.”

Trump had the same response to this June's mishaps, falsely insisting that the city would never know who won. In speeches and even legislation since last summer, Republicans have looked to make election-counting happen faster, with the goal of a call on election night. Liberal reformers wanted to prove that a slower ranked-choice count, rather than confusing voters, gave them confidence that the right candidate had won the election. But they didn't get to test that, because the board added then subtracted 135,000 test ballots by accident, and because it released a partial result before any absentee votes came in.

“It has been the most awe-inspiring, joyous, sad, challenging process,” candidate Maya Wiley told reporters on Thursday. Thanks to the ranked-choice system, Wiley still had a shot at becoming mayor, depending on what was on the absentee ballots that made up more than 10 percent of the total. Just as candidates can get the most votes in a crowded primary then lose a two-candidate runoff, a lead for Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams on June 22 did not mean that Adams would win the Democratic nomination.

“The story about how New York has challenges with elections is not a surprise to people,” said Rob Richie, the founder and CEO of FairVote, who testified in favor of ranked-choice in front of the 2018 charter revision commission. “That story can easily be kept in its box. We should focus on final fundamentals, which, I think, will actually tell a really positive story. It's going to be reassuring to people.”

Reading list

a group of people in a dark room: Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang greets supporters at a Manhattan hotel as he concedes on June 22. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images) © Spencer Platt/Getty Images Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang greets supporters at a Manhattan hotel as he concedes on June 22. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“Ballot counting in New York mayoral race takes turn for the chaotic,” by John Wagner and Felicia Sonmez

A blow-by-blow of a count that got even sloppier than expected.

“How Andrew Yang went from front-runner to fourth place,” by Dana Rubinstein

The candidate and his allies ask how they lost their message.

“New York City primary meltdown deals new setback to nation’s strained electoral system,” by Amy Gardner and David Weigel

Why Republicans are eager to point out the city's election problems.

“Trump went to the border to attack Biden — but he mainly talked about himself,” by Tyler Pager

A trip that got blurred out by bigger news.

“The senator who decided to tell the truth,” by Tim Alberta

A Michigan Republican bucks the trend.

“Fourth person linked to former congressman Scott Taylor’s campaign is charged with election fraud,” by Meagan Flynn

The long tail of a baffling 2018 scandal.

“Nina Turner is reaching forward and reaching back,” by Sarah Jaffe

An Ohio campaign that's more complicated than the candidate's last job.

In the states

a group of people standing and talking on the phone: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Ohio state senator Nina Turner march with supporters to a polling place in February 2020 in Winston-Salem, N.C. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post) © Salwan Georges/The Washington Post Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Ohio state senator Nina Turner march with supporters to a polling place in February 2020 in Winston-Salem, N.C. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Last Friday, as Donald Trump headed to northeast Ohio for a rally, House candidate Nina Turner was holding her own meeting of the faithful. Rapper “Killer” Mike Render and the Young Turks host Cenk Uygur joined her for a TYT-organized town hall to highlight the Aug. 3 Democratic primary in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, which they expect Turner to win. Within a few minutes, Render was talking about House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), praising the “good work” he'd done while criticizing his 2020 endorsement of Joe Biden's primary campaign.

“It's incredibly stupid to cut a deal before you get somebody elected president, and all you get is a federal holiday and nothing tangible out of it,” Render said.

“You better talk about it,” Turner said.

A few days later, Clyburn endorsed Cleveland City Council member Shontel Brown in the latest move by the Democratic Party’s establishment to head off a victory for the party’s left. 

The candidates exploited that tension. Turner's campaign claimed to have raised $100,000 in less than 24 hours after the Clyburn endorsement of Brown; Brown's campaign claimed to have raised $140,000, noting that it had recently outspend Turner on the air.

We have said we would start to peak when voters started heading to the polls and that is exactly what is happening, Brown's campaign wrote in a Wednesday memo for reporters. There is no doubt that this campaign has the momentum and is not slowing down as we head into July.” Internal polling from Turner's campaign, released last month, put the former state senator far ahead in the 13-way field.

Turner's campaign said Thursday that it had raised more than $920,000 in June alone, including a burst of support after former secretary of state Hillary Clinton endorsed Brown. Since entering the race, which was created by the retirement of now-HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge, Turner has lapped the field in fundraising and secured endorsements from local leaders such as Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson. Brown's campaign has relentlessly emphasized her local support, touting more than 150 endorsements from the city council to Cleveland community activists.

The 2016 election is haunting Ohio's GOP primary for U.S. Senate, too. Author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance launched his bid for the open seat on Thursday after months of speculation, and after untangling himself from other duties. Vance, who is counting on early financial support from Peter Thiel and the Mercer donor family, had been subjected to an anonymous negative campaign, with voters receiving unsolicited text messages informing them that Vance is an anti-Trump zealot. “Never-Trumper JD Vance looks down on Ohioans and despises Trump supporters,” read one Thursday text from a 513 area code in southwest Ohio. The Club for Growth, which like Vance hammered Trump in 2016 before coming around to supporting him, condemned him in a statement repeating its support for former state treasurer Josh Mandel.

“He says he’s from Middletown, but he made a boatload dissing his former neighbors to sell his book,” the organization said. “He claims to be a Trump Republican, but in the short time Mr. Vance has been active in politics he's spent the bulk of it tearing down President Trump and mocking Trump voters.” Mandel, who began the race with millions left over from an aborted 2018 campaign, has run as a passionate Trump supporter who claims that the 2020 election was rigged; he also has condemned Jane Timken, another competitor for the nomination, because as state party chair she didn't censure the only member of the GOP's Ohio delegation who voted to impeach Trump.

And on Thursday afternoon, California set a Sep. 14 date for its gubernatorial recall election. Candidates who want to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) have just 16 more days to file, and Republicans had been hopeful that a well-known Democrat would jump into the race, giving liberals a reason to vote “yes” to remove Newsom. There has been little sign of this as polls show Newsom recovering some of the popularity he lost during the winter lockdowns, and only around two in five voters say they'd vote to recall him.

Ad watch

Shontel Brown, “Clyburn Legacy.” The Ohio Democrat's campaign has been defined by its opposition to Nina Turner, portraying the crowded primary as a two-candidate race, with only one candidate who didn't undermine the Democrats' 2020 campaign. House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn's ad doesn't mention any particular part of Brown's record as a Cleveland politician. Instead, it lists notable Black Ohioans who used to hold the seat, with whom Clyburn worked, to imply that Cleveland wouldn't be well served by an ambitious politician. “They were effective because they focused on you, not on themselves,” Clyburn says. “Take it from me, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress: Shontel Brown will work with President Biden and her fellow Democrats to get things done for you.”

Nina Turner, “Soccer.” Only one of Turner's ads has mentioned her work with Bernie Sanders, the focus of Brown's criticism. The rest have reintroduced her to the district's Democratic voters as an effective and passionate liberal. Here, her campaign tees off on the pay gap between the world champion female U.S. Soccer team and the better-renumerated, less successful men's team. “It's not just soccer,” Turner says. “It's time our world champions and our everyday champions got the pay they deserve.”

Democratic National Committee, “America's Coming Back.” Third-party liberal groups have been running ads all year to promote President Biden's work so far, one example of how Democrats are trying to avoid a repeat of their 2010 meltdown. (One theory is that Barack Obama simply didn't cut through with voters and explain what he was doing.) The flashiest part of the new DNC campaign is an ice cream truck, and the more standard part is this ad, which portrays the country as back on track under Biden. “This year, there’s more to celebrate. The freedom to hug a grandchild. To see a baseball game in person. To come back together, again.”

National Republican Senatorial Committee, “Welfare for Politicians.” The GOP's Senate campaign group keeps running targeted spots against Democrats up for re-election in 2022, based on polling that has found the least popular elements of their agenda. This is one of several hits on a provision of the For the People Act which would expand public financing for elections; that can poll terribly if described as a gift to political candidates, which is what the ad does here.

Stop the Republican Recall, “Roaring Back.” The well-funded Democratic campaign against the recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Ca.) has alternated between two messages. One is that the “Republican recall” is an effort to undo the will of the voters, the other, seen here, is that Newsom is simply doing too much for the state to be cashiered. He's putting “money into your pocket,” delivering relief to small businesses, and “housing the homeless,” though the last point is a perennial campaign promise that Republicans dispute.

Poll watch

Every four years, the Pew Research Center plunges into data from the presidential election, profiling the electorate by interviewing “validated voters” — a sort of postgame exit poll, with more time to get it right. This year's included 11,145 panels, more than double the number polled after 2016.

This year's Pew study doesn't substantially differ from what exit pollsters found in the historically diffuse and hard-to-track 2020 electorate. (Exit pollsters usually don't have to interview so many mail voters or people observing social distancing.) Joe Biden won by improving his numbers with White voters, who had been drifting rightward since 2008. Donald Trump did far better with Latino voters than he had in 2016, going from 28 percent of that electorate to 38 percent. 

It's useful to divide the data into two categories: groups that moved in the same direction from 2016 to 2020, and groups that moved one way from 2016 to 2018 but moved back in 2020. Let's call them trends and disruptions.

Trends: Suburban voters shifted left after 2016 and never came back, which was fatal for the GOP. They backed Trump by two points in his race against Hillary Clinton, backed Democrats by seven points in the midterms, then backed Biden by 11 points. Republicans improved more marginally in urban areas, getting 12 percent in 2016, 13 percent in 2018 and 15 percent last year, driven by a consistently better performance with Black men. The 2020 Republican coalition was the party's most diverse in years, and 85 percent of its voters were White, compared to 61 percent of Democrats.

Disruptions: Latino voters moved back and forth, giving Democrats 66 percent of their vote in 2016, 72 percent in 2018, and 59 percent in 2020. Democrats' belief in Trump's ability to win Latino voters was well-founded, and party strategists didn't think imaginatively about how to respond. Trump's gains were across the board, as he improved over the party's midterm Latino vote by 13 points among men and 14 points among women. Biden, the party's fourth Catholic nominee, did far better than the 2018 Democrats with Catholics and slightly better than Clinton.

That added up to a Democratic win, but an election that was worse than Democrats expected. A big reason: They did not understand nonvoters, and were slightly naive about what would happen in an election with more people turning out. Voters who didn't show up in 2016 or 2018, according to Pew, backed Biden by just two points, worse than his performance overall. That's a factor to watch ahead of the midterms: Republican triumphs in 2010 and 2014 relied more on White voters, with and without college degrees, than their narrow 2016 win or narrow 2020 loss.

Court watch

a woman standing in front of a building: A jogger runs past the Supreme Court on Thursday. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock) © Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock A jogger runs past the Supreme Court on Thursday. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Liberals were bracing for losses in the Supreme Court's voting rights and election decisions this term, and they got them. In Brnovich v. DNC, Arizona's GOP attorney general convinced the court's conservative majority that restrictions on “ballot harvesting” and on voters casting ballots at the wrong precincts were not discriminatory, and the state had the right to enact them.

“One strong and entirely legitimate state interest is the prevention of fraud,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the 6-to-3 majority, with every Republican appointee breaking with the court's three Democratic appointees. “Fraud can affect the outcome of a close election, and fraudulent votes dilute the right of citizens to cast ballots that carry appropriate weight.”

The justices lined up the same way on Americans for Prosperity v. Bonta, siding with the Koch-funded political group and ruling against California's laws that force nonprofit groups to provide tax forms, including information on donors, to the state. As Republicans got more like-minded judges on the bench, they turned against disclosure, siding with groups such as the NAACP that had long characterized these kinds of requirements as ways to punish donors.

“I do not look forward to a society which, thanks to the Supreme Court, campaigns anonymously, and even exercises the direct democracy of initiative and referendum hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism,” the late Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a 2010 dissent, concerning a case about disclosing petition signers. “This does not resemble the Home of the Brave.”

Both decisions were expected as soon as the court granted cert; the current court is more conservative than the one that struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act in the 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, and the that expanded the scope of political nonprofit groups in a series of Bush-era and Obama-era rulings.

In Memoriam

Mike Gravel in 2019 in Seaside, Calif. (John Brecher for The Washington Post) © John Brecher/For The Washington Post Mike Gravel in 2019 in Seaside, Calif. (John Brecher for The Washington Post)

Mike Gravel (1930-2021) ran for president twice, decades after his political career was over. He didn't run to win, and he didn't consider those campaigns to be all that important. 

“My whole effort for the last 25 years has been to create direct democracy and a legislature of the people,” Gravel told The Trailer two summers ago, during his effort, run by two left-wing teenagers, to attract enough donations to grab a spot at a presidential primary debate and rip into the established candidates.

Gravel died this week in California, 50 years after he used his power as a Democratic senator from Alaska to read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record. That was among the first things mentioned in most of Gravel's obituaries, not because it was the boldest thing he ever did, but because it's  the sort of thing people talk about doing if they're elected, then back down from. 

How did Gravel evolve from a fearless young senator to a frustrated gadfly? The simple reason is that he lost reelection in the 1980 Republican wave and never found another path to elected office. Gravel moved to Alaska before it gained statehood to build a political base, and you can really only do that once. He left office with a secure place in history, and a proud role in getting an oil pipeline built from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. Other defeated senators found work as lobbyists, but not him.

“I lost my marriage,” Gravel told The Post during his 2008 presidential bid. “Nobody wanted to hire me for anything important.”

Gravel found other ways to make a living and poured himself into a cause that would have made his entire career irrelevant: Direct democracy, which would allow voters to make laws in national referendums. It wouldn't be perfect, he argued, but it would be “greatly improved over the minority rule we now endure.” It was a utopian idea that Gravel would talk to basically anyone about, a habit that got him in trouble, apologizing when the people who'd invited him to talk about ballot initiatives turned out to be anti-Semites or members of political cults.

In 2008, and during his gadfly campaign in 2019, Gravel got the most attention as an old man who would say what plenty of people were thinking. America should stay out of foreign wars. An income tax should replace the sales tax. Voters should get to write their own laws. He never had a strategy for winning the nomination, other than catching fire with the power of his ideas. 

That instinct turned other politicians into cranks; former senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, for example, made run after run, drawing smaller and smaller crowds, ending his career as an advocate for Lyndon LaRouche's ballot access. And it would have been easy to dismiss Gravel, who bolted to the Libertarian Party after his 2008 campaign went nowhere, voted for the Green Party in 2016, and said he wouldn't vote for Biden if he won the nomination. Being fearless does not mean being popular, or even right. Gravel was fearless because he knew he didn't know everything. When in doubt — and they really needed more doubt — he thought politicians should let their constituents make the big decisions.

Countdown

… 11 days until all ballots are ranked and counted in New York 

… 26 days until the special election in Texas’s 6th Congressional District 

… 33 days until primaries in Ohio’s 11th and 15th Congressional Districts 

… 124 days until primaries in Florida’s 20th Congressional District

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