By Sam Roberts (February 16, 2008)
Black voters are heavily represented in the 94th Election District in Harlem's 70th Assembly District. Yet according to the unofficial results from the New York Democratic primary last week, not a single vote in the district was cast for Senator Barack Obama.
That anomaly was not unique. In fact, a review by The New York Times of the unofficial results reported on primary night found about 80 election districts among the city's 6,106 where Mr. Obama supposedly did not receive even one vote, including cases where he ran a respectable race in a nearby district.
City election officials this week said that their formal review of the results, which will not be completed for weeks, had confirmed some major discrepancies between the vote totals reported publicly - and unofficially - on primary night and the actual tally on hundreds of voting machines across the city.
In the Harlem district, for instance, where the primary night returns suggested a 141 to 0 sweep by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the vote now stands at 261 to 136. In an even more heavily black district in Brooklyn - where the vote on primary night was recorded as 118 to 0 for Mrs. Clinton - she now barely leads, 118 to 116.
The history of New York elections has been punctuated by episodes of confusion, incompetence and even occasional corruption. And election officials and lawyers for both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton agree that it is not uncommon for mistakes to be made by weary inspectors rushing on election night to transcribe columns of numbers that are delivered first to the police and then to the news media.
That said, in a presidential campaign in which every vote at the Democratic National Convention may count, a swing of even a couple of hundred votes in New York might help Mr. Obama gain a few additional delegates.
City election officials said they were convinced that there was nothing sinister to account for the inaccurate initial counts, and The Times's review found a handful of election districts in the city where Mrs. Clinton received zero votes in the initial results.
"It looked like a lot of the numbers were wrong, probably the result of human error," said Marcus Cederqvist, who was named executive director of the Board of Elections last month. He said such discrepancies between the unofficial and final count rarely affected the raw vote outcome because "they're not usually that big."
On primary night, Mrs. Clinton was leading with 57 percent to Mr. Obama's 40 percent in New York State, which meant she stood to win 139 delegates to Mr. Obama's 93, with 49 others known as superdelegates going to the national convention unaffiliated.
Jerome A. Koenig, a former chief of staff to the State Assembly's election law committee and a lawyer for the Obama campaign, suggested that some of the discrepancy resulted from the design of the ballot.
Candidates were listed from left to right in an order selected by drawing lots. Mrs. Clinton was first, followed by Gov. Bill Richardson and Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., who in most election districts received zero votes, and by John Edwards, who got relatively few. Mr. Obama was fifth, just before Representative Dennis J. Kucinich.
Mr. Koenig said he seriously doubted that anything underhanded was at work because local politicians care more about elections that matter specifically to them.
"They steal votes for elections like Assembly District leader, where people have a personal stake," he said.
A number of political leaders also scoffed at the possibility that local politicians, even if they considered it vital that Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton prevail in the primary, were capable of even trying to hijack such a contest.
Still, for those inclined to consider conspiracy theories, the figures provided plenty of grist.
The 94th Election District in Harlem, for instance, sits within the Congressional district represented by Charles B. Rangel, an original supporter of Mrs. Clinton.
Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright, a Clinton supporter who represents the same area, said he was confident that there was an innocent explanation for the original count giving Mr. Obama zero votes.
"I'm sure it's a clerical error of some sort," Mr. Wright said. "Being around elections for the last 25 years, no candidate receives zero votes."
But Gordon J. Davis, a former New York City parks commissioner and an Obama poll watcher in the district, remained skeptical, even after being informed of the corrected count.
"First it was reported at 141 to 0, now it's 261 to 136 in an Assembly district that went 12,000 to 8,000 for Barack," Mr. Davis said on Friday.
"I was watching like a hawk, but how did I know the machine had a mind of its own?" he added. "And I speak as one who grew up on the South Side of Chicago where we delivered the margin of victory for John F. Kennedy at 4 in the morning."
At the sprawling Riverside Park Community apartments at Broadway and 135th Street, Alician D. Barksdale said she had voted for Mr. Obama and her daughter had, too, by absentee ballot.
"Everyone around here voted for him," she said.
The 53rd Assembly District, in Brooklyn, is represented by the borough's Democratic chairman, Assemblyman Vito P. Lopez, another Clinton supporter. He said the party faithful have produced lopsided margins of as much as 160 to 4 and that on Primary Day he fielded election captains in every district to galvanize Hispanic voters for Mrs. Clinton.
"We ran it the old-fashioned way," he said. Still, he said, the 118 to 0 vote "has to be a mistake."
At the Archive, a cafe and video store on the border of Bushwick and East Williamsburg, the manager, Brad Lee, agreed. "There were Obama posters in everyone's windows," he said. "There was even Obama graffiti."
Most election-night anomalies are later reconciled by the official canvass of the machines and in the formal count of absentee returns and of paper affidavit ballots issued on Primary Day, to people who do not appear to be eligible but demand the right to vote, and later validated.
On Feb. 5, Mrs. Clinton carried 61 of the state's 62 counties but won Brooklyn by a margin of less than 2 percent. Because delegates are awarded proportionately on the basis of the primary vote in each Congressional district, Obama supporters expressed hope that if the official count continued in their favor, they might gain an additional delegate or two.
Kate Hammer and Robin Stein contributed reporting.
Originally appeared in New York Times.
By Sam Roberts (February 16, 2008)