Laura Mueller-Soppart is a politically active Brooklynite — and voting, to her, is very important.
"Being able to vote was that one moment where you could say, 'I am going to the polls. I am making my voice heard,’” she told NY1 while strolling through her Brooklyn neighborhood. “And to have that taken away, it shocked me. It's not what I expected to happen."
But it did in June of 2020.
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Like thousands of other New Yorkers, Mueller-Soppart requested an absentee ballot. She was in Chicago at the time and wanted it sent there. She got the application in just in time.
But that ballot arrived 10 days after the election. She couldn't vote.
"Democracy already felt like it was in a precarious place for the past five years for someone with my politics, living in this neighborhood,” she said. "And to not be able to have any say in what direction that was going to go in in that moment felt incredibly undemocratic and un-American."
Mueller-Soppart is one of thousands of New Yorkers who have had trouble casting their ballots over the years. And even when some are able to vote, problems can still persist.
Those problems even emerged for Dante de Blasio, Mayor Bill de Blasio's son.
"I would later find out, my ballot got leaked,” the younger de Blasio told NY1 outside of the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently. “Or it's available publicly because the Board of Elections does not maintain the secrecy of every ballot that's cast in New York City."
A report from Princeton University last month found voting data released by the Board of Elections in August did not effectively shield the ballots of 378 voters who happen to be the only people voting in their election district.
It meant anyone could know who Dante de Blasio voted for.
"It was shocking,” Dante de Blasio told NY1. “It was disturbing to know that something I took for granted, that my ballot would be secret, is now public information and I don't see any compelling reason that the Board of Elections should be releasing information of me and 370 other people just so anyone can look."
That’s two separate blunders, and, we know, there are many more.
Nearly every year for the past six years, the Board of Elections has faced scandal or controversy, some of them directly linked to the board’s mismanagement and lack of oversight. NY1 has spent months interviewing employees, new and old, stakeholders and elected officials on the state of our city's election administration, finding a series of missteps and mismanagement — for years.
In 2016, New York voters discovered the board illegally purged about 117,000 voters off the rolls in Brooklyn.
In 2018, long lines and clogged machines led to massive chaos at the polls. The board's leader initially attributed it to the weather.
In 2020, the board admitted thousands of absentee ballots didn’t get to voters on time.
And even after that, more than 83,000 absentee ballots that were returned were invalidated — tossed out for technical errors (technicalities the board says are dictated by state election law). Ultimately, the board confirmed about 20% of absentee ballots weren't counted.
Which brings us to June 29, 2021.
For the first time the board would reveal unofficial election results from a new system of ranked-choice voting.
But it quickly became clear those numbers were wrong.
It would be seven hours after the actual release of results before the Board of Elections admitted what happened — 135,000 dummy ballots, which were used to test the system, were not cleared before the board started tabulating the vote.
So the unofficial results were wrong.
“It was caught literally within minutes,” said Michael Ryan, the executive director of the Board of Elections. “Unfortunately, the fix, the undo wasn't so easy to rectify with speed. It was easy enough to rectify in reality, but not in terms of the impatience of the public to get the information, and rightfully so.”
Board officials say it was a simple mistake.
But NY1 has learned those officials failed to accept assistance that could have averted the crisis.
We sat down with Caleb Kleppner of MK Elections. Kleppner is a subcontractor with the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center — the company that created the tabulation software. They had offered to assist the board with the tabulation. But, Kleppner says, the board was not responsive.
"What happened was they installed the software and saw that it was working, and then they didn't really listen to our advice on how to use it and how to display the results,” said Kleppner. “And in particular they didn't accept our offer to do a parallel tabulation of the results to double check their work before they released it to the public."
“It was actually kind of frustrating to have a contract with the city to provide services and for them not to avail themselves of our services," he added.
Emails exclusively obtained through the freedom of information law by NY1 confirm the center reached out multiple times to offer support over the course of six months.
Board officials say it was not a training issue, but human error.
At the time, the board’s executive director, Michael Ryan, was on medical leave. He just returned last month.
Its administrative manager, Pam Perkins, had just retired. She wasn’t there either.
The board's deputy executive director and its operations manager were running the show.
Sources at the board tell NY1 there was a divide among leadership on how quickly the ranked-choice results should even be released. Ultimately, the board sacrificed accuracy for speed.
“There was a demand for transparency. And there was a demand for speed,” Ryan told NY1. “I have always said, and you've heard me say this, we will never sacrifice accuracy for speed. That seems to have happened here, which now causes us to go back and say, 'OK, how did this happen? And how do we fix it.'"
The error occurred in the Queens office. Sources at the board told tell NY1 many employees there were overwhelmed and overworked.
One longtime employee at the office did not follow the procedures laid out.
She has since retired.