What a mess.
An opportunity for New York to demonstrate to the nation the value of ranked-choice voting — allowing the will of the majority in America’s most populous city to carry the day even in a crowded mayoral race — dissolved into chaos Tuesday night.
The reason had nothing to do with the criticisms ranked-choice voting opponents often make, including claims that voters would be confused or the instant-runoff system would be too complex and costly to administer.
Instead, the problem was caused by pure ineptitude: the failure of city election officials to adequately prepare the vote-tallying software ahead of the count. As a result, about 135,000 sample ballot images were included with actual ballots in the result tally.
It should go without saying that competent election administration is an elemental part of voting rights. But this massive failure by the city’s Board of Elections, which has a long history of mismanagement, nepotism, and incompetence, could not have come at a more consequential moment for our democracy.
Not only do the voters of New York deserve better, but the repercussions of this bungled process go far beyond the city’s five boroughs. This disaster will play directly into the hands of those carrying out efforts across the country to roll back access to voting — efforts that will disproportionately affect poor, minority, and marginalized Americans — based on the false premise that the 2020 election was fraudulent and that vote-counting is rife with errors.
The event has already been seized by the biggest peddler of the Big Lie.
“Just like in the 2020 Presidential Election, it was announced overnight in New York City that vast irregularities and mistakes were made,” Donald Trump said in a statement. “The fact is, based on what has happened, nobody will ever know who really won.”
Others joined Trump’s suggestions that fraud rather than bungling was the cause of the delayed New York election tabulations.
“Ranked-choice voting is confusing, complicated, and it’s ripe for fraud,” tweeted Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a Trump ally. “How can anyone trust that a voter’s fourth-place choice was accurately tabulated on the eighth round of ranking? Look at the debacle in New York City right now.”
New Yorkers and all Americans should be able to trust that the results of elections are accurate and fair, protected from interference whether foreign or domestic, and free of voter suppression. No voter in that city could be blamed if they question the ultimate result of the mayoral race; that blame rests squarely with the Election Board, and every member of the board should be held accountable for breaking that trust.
That accountability may have to wait for, among other things, board members to return from their summer vacations next week, according to the board’s president, Frederic M. Umane. You can’t make this stuff up.
But this moment should not overshadow the benefit and promise of ranked-choice voting, which can bring more fairness to elections by removing incentives for negative campaigning, encouraging a broader and more representative field of qualified candidates, and ensuring that the winner earns support from a wide cross-section of the electorate. This event should give New York election officials a black eye, but not ranked-choice voting.
Most importantly, this event should not be allowed to be co-opted by those pushing false narratives of fraud in an effort to limit access to voting. The real voter suppression is what is happening with a spate of state laws imposing new restrictions on voting less than a year after expanded access to the polls resulted in record turnout rates at the height of a pandemic — with no proven evidence of widespread or even location-specific voter fraud.
The sorry episode in New York is a reminder that America’s generally smooth elections must not be taken for granted. Efforts to suppress votes often take the guise of “integrity” measures to respond to nonexistent threats; the job of defenders of voting rights is that much harder when irregularities actually do occur. Voting rights need greater protections, and ranked-choice voting can be an important part of those protections — but only if cities like New York care enough about their elections to put competent people in charge of them.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.