• The Star Staff

Why the botched NYC primary has become the November nightmare

New York City Board of Elections worker counts absentee ballots in Brooklyn on Thursday, July 16, 2020.

By Jesse McKinley

Election officials in New York City widely distributed mail-in ballots for the primary on June 23, which featured dozens of hard-fought races. The officials had hoped to make voting much easier, but they did not seem prepared for the response: more than 10 times the number of absentee ballots received in recent elections in the city.

Now, nearly six weeks later, two closely watched congressional races remain undecided, and major delays in counting a deluge of 400,000 mail-in ballots and other problems are being cited as examples of the challenges facing the nation as it looks toward conducting the November general election during the pandemic.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other officials are trading blame for the botched counting in the city, and the Postal Service is coming under criticism over whether it is equipped to handle the sharp increase in absentee ballots.

Election lawyers said one area of concern in New York City was that mail-in ballots have prepaid return envelopes. The Postal Service apparently had difficulty processing some of them correctly and, as a result, an unknown number of votes — perhaps thousands — may have been wrongfully disqualified because of a lack of a postmark.

Thousands more ballots in the city were discarded by election officials for minor errors, or not even sent to voters until the day before the primary, making it all but impossible for the ballots to be returned in time.

In recent days, President Donald Trump has also jumped into fray, repeatedly citing the primary in New York City for his unfounded claims that mail-in voting is susceptible to fraud. There is no evidence that the primary results were tainted by criminal malfeasance, according to a wide array of election officials and representatives of campaigns.

Still, candidates and political analysts are warning that government officials at all levels need to take urgent action to avoid a nightmare in November.

“This election is a canary in the coal mine,” said Suraj Patel, a Democrat running for Congress in a district that includes parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, who has filed a federal lawsuit over the primary.

Patel trails the incumbent, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, by some 3,700 votes, though more than 12,000 ballots have been disqualified, including about 1,200 that were missing postmarks, he said.

He is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in July that is asking a federal court to order election officials to count disqualified ballots. The lawsuit included testimony that election officials had mailed out more than 34,000 ballots one day before the June 23 primary.

A winner has also not been declared in a congressional district in the Bronx, where Ritchie Torres, a Democratic city councilman, holds a comfortable lead over several other contenders.

Other states and localities had vote-by-mail primaries during the pandemic, with some scattered reports of problems — though nothing on the scale of New York City’s weekslong process. Even before the outbreak, the city’s Board of Elections had a reputation as a troubled agency that ran elections rife with problems.

New York City election officials insisted last week that they were doing their best under the extraordinary circumstances.

They pointed out the difficulties in protecting election workers from the coronavirus, and cited state laws requiring the disqualification of ballots for various small errors — including missing signatures on ballot envelopes or envelopes sealed with tape — for contributing to the high number of invalidated ballots.

Election officials also said the changing plans for the state’s presidential primary — it was initially canceled before being reinstated by the courts — had delayed the process of sending out absentee ballots.

The city’s Board of Elections is not expected to certify the vote until Tuesday. Thirteen weeks later, on Nov. 3, the state and city could face another crush of absentee ballots.

Primaries were conducted across the state, but New York City seemed to encounter the biggest problems, in part because it had many closely contested races and substantial voter participation.

Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, acknowledged last week that the primary was flawed, likening mail-in voting to other “systems that we were working on but were not ready,” such as remote learning and telemedicine, and suggesting the problem lay at a local level.

“We did have — not we — boards of elections had operational issues, some better, some worse, and they have to learn from them,” Cuomo said. “And we want to get the lessons and make the system better and make it better for November.”

A person familiar with the internal operation of the city’s Board of Elections, but not authorized to speak on the record, said that having to increase the number of mail-in ballots had caused enormous struggles at the agency.

“Imagine saying, ‘I’m having a dinner party for 10 people,’ and then they say, ‘No, it’s 100 people,’” the person said. “It’s a very deep learning curve.”

The person added that the board made missteps along the way, including not hiring enough people to count the absentee ballots. Even the vendors hired to produce the ballots seemed overwhelmed.

In comments Saturday, Cuomo said his administration had offered help to local election boards, including “personnel to do counting,” though no boards seemed to take the state up on its offer. He also noted that some boards did not start counting ballots until the second week of July. “Well, what was that?” he said.

Trump has repeatedly referred to the New York primary over the last two weeks, warning that the “same thing would happen, but on massive scale” across the country on Nov. 3.

The president returned to the topic Thursday as means of justifying his suggestion that the general election might need to be postponed, a trial balloon that was widely panned by even his fellow Republicans.

The counting of absentee ballots is more labor intensive than machine counts of in-person votes, which in the past had made up more than 90% of New York’s election returns. Jerry H. Goldfeder, a veteran election lawyer, said the board did not have enough money to hire workers to process absentee ballots.

“They could have asked for money and hired more staff, because they knew in advance they were going to get an avalanche of absentee ballots,” Goldfeder said. “There’s nothing magical about that.”

Bruce Gyory, a Democratic political consultant, said the state and city needed to drastically increase election staff for November. “This is logistics,” Gyory said. “It isn’t rocket science.”

He added that such steps could make it more difficult for Trump to cite problems in New York to dispute the results of the general election.

“He is trying to create doubt,” Gyory said. “Because he knows he’s going to lose the election if things don’t change.”

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