Politics

What Happened in New York’s Primary Could Happen to You in November

Mail-in voting is safe. But states have to know how to implement it.

A container of pens, a box of disposable face masks, and a roll of "I Voted" stickers on a table
A polling place in New York City on June 23. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

Like everything else in the world, New York’s June 23 primary election was transformed by COVID-19. The scale of mail-in ballots was 17.5 times higher than in the last primary election, and the state’s institutions were not at all prepared for the deluge. In New York’s 12th Congressional District, the race between incumbent Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney and progressive challenger Suraj Patel has yet to be decided.

When Jada Yuan of the Washington Post tried to figure out what happened, she found two major problems: the length of time it’s taking to count the votes, and the high number of votes that are getting thrown out. In the 12th District, 19 to 28 percent of ballots were invalidated, according to the preliminary numbers. Compare that with 1.8 and 3 percent for Wisconsin and Georgia, respectively, which also held disastrous elections during the pandemic.

On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Yuan about how New York’s mail-in ballot effort made a mess that’s still being cleaned up, and what that means for the November general election. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Harris: This district is the only one in New York in which absentee ballots made up well over 50 percent of the vote—which makes it an interesting place to focus because, of course, going into November, there’s so much conversation about whether all of us should be voting absentee.

Jada Yuan: Yeah, it raises a lot of issues for November. I’m doing a case study of one district in New York City where the turnout isn’t even that high. It was the highest turnout of any district in the city, but New York City has notoriously low turnout.

When November comes around, we have an election that is incredibly important to so many people. Presidential general elections are always a higher turnout than a congressional primary. So you’re thinking of adding in almost double the number of ballots while we’re in the midst of a pandemic that may have a resurgence in the fall, leading more people to stay home and choose mail-in voting. What kind of kinks in the system will we not have worked out from these primary elections that are going to really blow up in November?

In vote tallying, there’s that first stage where folks just look at the envelope and say, “Are we even going to open this thing?” With this race between Carolyn Maloney and Suraj Patel, how many of those envelopes never got opened?

Thirteen thousand out of 65,000 turned in.

And how much is Carolyn Maloney leading by right now?

Somewhere in the range of 3,000 to 4,000 votes, so I think that it is probably true that she will pull this out. Half of those 13,000 were invalidated because there’s a missing signature, and there’s really no getting around the law on that.

But the other half are invalidated generally because of a missing postmark. The Patel camp and his lawyers argued in a lawsuit that that these are invalidations that have nothing to do with the voter, there were miscommunications between the U.S. Postal Service and the government, and these ballots didn’t get postmarked for a number of complicated reasons. They arrived and were just thrown out anyway, even though the voter did everything in their power to follow the rules, to try to get their vote counted.

You brought up this rule that you have to sign your ballot, and it may not be immediately obvious to you that you need to do that. Then there are also these little boxes on the envelope, and it’s sort of unclear—do I write there? Do I not write there? It says for official use. Am I official? I got a ballot, and that’s what I was thinking: What do I do there? I guess nothing.

And you did the right thing because if you had written in that box, then you would have had your vote thrown out. I know people who did write in that box because they actually went online and they looked at their Assembly district and they tried to fill out all the correct information. I think they thought they were helping, and yet what they were doing was getting their vote thrown out. Voting rights advocates would say that one is a design flaw, and it’s an education flaw that is on the Board of Elections to fix.

In the leadup to this election, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was really clear that you can pop your mail-in ballot in the mailbox on Election Day and you are good to go. But it turns out that wasn’t really the case. Can you explain why?

First of all, there’s a difference in messaging between mailing and postmarking. So you think that the deadline is June 23 to mail something, you think, I can drop it in a corner post office box and I’m good to go, I did my duty. But it needs to be treated a lot more like your taxes, where you need to get in there and watch the teller postmark this thing to know that it’s happening.

Which defeats the purpose of not going into a building to vote.

Completely.

In New York, mail-in voting got a lot more complicated because of how the pandemic disrupted the election schedule. First, the primary got pushed back, and then the presidential primary race was nearly taken off the ballot. Finally, the governor declared that mail-in ballots would be sent out to every city resident registered to vote. But by that time, the Board of Elections had just a few weeks to get those ballots out there, and getting them in the mail was a gargantuan task, for both the board and the U.S. Postal Service.

You have the governor making these pronouncements that the Board of Elections maybe can or cannot do according to their ability and their staffing and their funding. And then you’re also relying on this federal agency, which, as we all know, is under extreme pressure. They had 17,000 employees who had to be quarantined because of exposure to the coronavirus, because they’re front-line workers. And then they are facing bankruptcy, and they have a president who is constantly threatening to dismantle them. I mean, anyone who gets mail knows that mail delivery has slowed during this time. So you’re asking both the Board of Elections and the U.S. Postal Service to move mountains.

And the Board of Elections in New York doesn’t have a great history of managing elections.

Yeah, they were accused of purging the voter rolls in 2016. The head of the Board of Elections was asked to step down, and that person is still in charge. There isn’t a lot of trust that they can handle this. And it’s also their job to communicate with the Postal Service about what is going on and what needs to happen.

The big thing is that the ballots were sent out with postage-paid return business class envelopes, so you don’t have to put a stamp on it. But this kind of business class postage return mail is not typically postmarked, because it’s free—you just stick it in the mail, and it goes to where it’s supposed to go. There was obviously some confusion among Postal Service employees about whether or not they were supposed to be postmarking these things, so a lot of ballots, especially in Brooklyn, arrived without a postmark to the Board of Elections after the 23rd, which automatically invalidates it.

Isn’t that something that could be solved? Couldn’t the governor say, “I messed up here. Clearly the intention was for everyone to be able to vote and put these in the mailbox on Election Day. That didn’t happen, so I’ll just invalidate this rule about postmarks”?

Yes, conceivably that could happen. But the governor has chosen to punt this. Every time he was asked about this in a press conference, he said this is the job of the state legislature.

Is it possible that New York is going to get it together for November?

New York could possibly take some of these lessons and implement them for November. This is just one district isolated within a very blue state, and every state has a different set of laws and problems with their boards of elections. The New York City Board of Elections and the New York State Board of Elections don’t even have the same rules. It’s a cautionary tale for November, and it is a little scary.

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