Depressing Implications of NYC's 13th District

New York City’s primary season has undergone many changes this year. In addition to the redrawing of the city’s Congressional districts, the United States Senate and House primaries were pushed back from the usual September date to late June.But it’s neither the earlier date of last Tuesday’s primaries nor the shifting district lines that has thrown the recent election into the spotlight. In fact, it’s an all too familiar post-election controversy that is drawing the attention of local citizens and national media outlets alike. The redrawn District 13, which includes Harlem and parts of the Bronx, is on the verge of scandal as incumbent Congressman Charlie Rangel and State Senator Adriano Espaillat face off for the win – after the results have already been called.

Tuesday evening closed with a slight but certain margin of victory for the 82 year old congressman, who pulled in 45 percent of the vote while Espaillat took 40 percent, reported Reuters the following Wednesday. By Friday night, that number had evened out, with the difference between the candidates tallying at just over 1000 votes instead of Tuesday’s numbers of more than 2000.  But by Saturday night, according to the Board of Elections numbers, Congressman Rangel had just over 44 percent of the vote to Espaillat’s 42 percent, making the total difference one of merely 800 votes.

As it turns out, the discrepancy resulted from the simple failure to record and count thousands of ballots. Of the 506 precincts in the district, 79 – many of them strongholds for the Dominican challenger - were recorded as taking in no votes. Zero.

Of Sunday, there were 2000 affidavit and absentee ballots left to count of the 3,200 that had been originally disregarded.

While Congressman Rangel is confident that he will hold onto his victory – presuming that some of the affidavit ballots amongst those still left to count are inadmissible for various legal reasons – the number of uncounted ballots surpass the difference between the two candidates, and anything can happen.

Residents of the 13th District are, of course, deeply concerned about the actual outcome of the election. With Espaillat running as the first Dominican candidate in the area and Rangel bringing over forty years of political experience to the table, this primary was an important one.

But the false zeroes in nearly eighty precincts and the weeklong delay in finding and counting nearly 3,200 votes has troublesome implications beyond this primary. With incredibly important elections coming up this November, our confidence in our government’s ability to accurately count our votes has been dealt a heavy blow. As numerous pieces covering this story ironically pointed out, this mix-up took place when city officials were dealing with only one election in one Congressional district. When November rolls around and New Yorkers vote for senator, congressman, and president, how will our city’s voting system cope with the influx of all types of ballots – mechanical and written – and for multiple races?

The problem is not only a practical one, but a theoretical problem of democracy.

The old adage that “every vote counts” has been challenged by cynics for centuries. An individual vote, really, has little impact in an overall election – especially when dealing with the Electoral College; or when voting for an independent candidate, or a Democrat in a red state and a Republican in a blue one.

While it is important to maintain an attitude that individual participation is vital to a thriving democracy, it is easy to lose sight of this when staring at overwhelming voting patterns and the media portrayal of electoral trends.

It’s small-scale elections, really, that remind us how important our individual voice is. We can make a difference in a local primary. We can make a difference, even, in a district Congressional race. When the numbers come back and instead of abstract concepts like “70 million” or even the more specific “66,882,230” (numbers making the rounds after President Obama’s victory in 2008), we see vote tallies like 16,898 – Rangel’s total count as of last Friday – and we can believe them, we can understand them, we can relate to them.  Any one of us could have been that 16,898th vote.

So when these numbers are not to be trusted, what’s to restore our passion for participation in the democratic process? When our government is proving to us, over and over, that our votes may or may not count – it doesn’t really matter – how are we to help but falling prey to the cynical mindset that every vote doesn’t count?

This question has plagued American thinkers for hundreds of years, and is not one that can be easily answered. The American response has been, for the most part, to keep voting and engaging in civil activity, but the past few generations have been witness to a dramatic decrease in both voter turnout and civic engagement. Young Americans are choosing to get involved in other ways, but we are increasingly convinced that our votes may not count as much as we hope they would.

While the theoretical challenge of the small – or nonexistent – impact that on vote can have is inherent to democracy, the practical problem of actually and physically not counting votes is one that can, and must, be solved. Government officials, especially on the local level, must be held accountable for ensuring the security of every ballot. The Board of Elections should treat our ballots with the same meticulous care that the IRS treats our tax forms. It is up to us – and this is where our voices do count – to push for better voting systems and more streamlined counting procedures.

Every vote may not determine an election, but every vote should – and can – be counted.