New York’s Mail-In Ballot Failure

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S1: Here in New York, there are these huge spaces all over the city where up until a few days ago, ballots were being scrutinized and votes were being counted.

S2: Queens as in like an auditorium and the one in Brooklyn is in a literal cage, a cage like a wire cage inside this warehouse that is just filled otherwise with voting machines wrapped in plastic.

S1: Jada Yuan writes for The Washington Post. She’s been looking at these sites. Ballots come here to be certified, confirmed as authentic.

S2: When I was there in Brooklyn, a bunch of people confirmed around and they’re like, Barry actually wasn’t even supposed to be voting in this district.

S3: So Barry got his vote thrown out like literally a guy named Barry. Yeah, literally for Barry, whoever you are out there, I’m so sorry.

S1: But this process of certification, it’s been happening for nearly a month. Election Day in New York, the primary for Congress and the presidency. It was way back in June, 37 days ago in a couple of races. New York still hasn’t officially called the race.

S2: And it’s just you can’t look away, but you also are just like what is happening and why is it taking so long?

S1: It’s funny, I’m used to thinking about election night. I feel like all of us are right. But it feels like that whole concept needs like a rebrand.

S2: You like Election Month. It’s sort of it’s like it’s like, you know, when people say it’s my birthday month, you know, except that you’re not celebrating. You’re just sort of stuck in Waiting for Godot forever.

S1: This is not how it normally works, right?

S2: Well, I think it’s how it normally works with with absentee ballot counting and affidavit counting. But there’s just never been this scale.

S1: Like everything else in the world, New York’s election was transformed by covid, and the results aren’t pretty.

S3: The scale of absentee ballots or mail in ballots in New York is seventeen point five times higher than it was in the last primary election.

S1: And if you’re wondering if New York’s various institutions were ready to deal with that flood of mail in voting, the simple answer, it’s no, not at all.

S4: Today on the show, how one state’s efforts to make sure all its residents could vote safely made a mess that’s still being cleaned up. And why come November, declaring a winner might be even harder. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: Jada set out to examine what happened in New York’s primary by looking at one district, New York’s 12th. Why did you want to focus there?

S2: Basically because it is my congressional district. I I saw that on election night. There was no winner declared. The percentages were about forty one percent for Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who is the incumbent of 30 years and 40 percent research fatalities. Her challenger with six hundred and forty eight votes separating them, 648.

S1: Wow.

S2: And I thought, well, this is going to be interesting. When are they ever going to figure out who won this thing?

S1: Well, it’s interesting because of the characters, too, because Carolyn Maloney has been representing New York for decades and Serge Batel is kind of positioning himself as a progressive alternative to her.

S2: Yeah, he positioned himself as someone who is he’s thirty six years old. Carolyn Maloney is seventy four years old. He ran on sort of a generational change kind of platform.

S1: New York’s 12th Congressional District spans the east side of Manhattan, a big chunk of Queens and a northern bit of Brooklyn. Weeks after the race when Weiner still hadn’t been declared, Jada realized the hold up. It wasn’t just about one problem.

S2: There are two separate things going on here. There’s there’s the length of time that it’s seeking to count the votes. And then there’s these votes that are going to be thrown out.

S1: Elections experts have told us, don’t worry if it takes a long time to count votes, especially in close elections and complicated elections like we’re seeing now. But the votes being thrown out that troubled Jada, what she found in her home district was a ballot invalidation rate that’s much higher than we’ve seen in recent elections, like look at Wisconsin and Georgia. It was well reported that primaries there went a bit haywire this year. Wisconsin rejected one point eight percent of its mail in ballots. Georgia rejected three percent. But in the 12th District, 19 percent of Manhattan ballots got invalidated. According to the preliminary numbers in Brooklyn, the number may be as high as 28 percent. You know, in your reporting, you raise this other issue, too, which is that their district is the only one in New York in which absentee ballots made up over 50 percent, 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, correct?

S2: Yeah, that district, it was 40 percent in person versus sixty five percent male in. And that was in large part because so many people on the Upper East Side and Gramercy who are wealthy and have second homes in the Hamptons, just sort of left the city. But yeah, I mean, it raises a lot of issues for November where 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 like New York City, has notoriously low turnout. New York State was forty nine out of fiftieth, I think, in twenty nineteen and some turnout like we’re known for really bad turnout. But if you think about, like, what this means when November comes around, when 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?

S1: You talked about how the sort of vote tallying location, 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 Serj Patel? How many of those envelopes just like never got opened?

S2: Thirteen thousand out of sixty five thousand turned in.

S1: And how much is Carolyn Maloney leading by right now?

S2: Somewhere in the range of 3000 to 4000 votes. So I think that it is probably true that she will pull this out because half of those 13000 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, which the Patel camp and of lawyers, they argued in a lawsuit that that these are investigations that have nothing to do with the voter. That there were miscommunications between the US Postal Service and the government, and these ballots didn’t get postmarked for a number of complicated reasons, and they arrived and were just thrown out anyway, even though the voter did everything in their power to follow the rules, try to get their vote counted in this lawsuit that Serj Patel is a part of, it really just highlights all of these little rules around absentee voting that are complicated and that could go sideways in a few months when we’re all voting in the general like one of them.

S1: 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. And then there are also these little boxes on the envelope, and it’s sort of unclear, like do I right there, do I not right there. It says for official use, am I official? I mean, I got a ballot and that’s what I was thinking. Like, what do I do there? I guess nothing.

S2: Yeah. And you did the right thing because you had written in that box. Then you would have had your vote thrown out. And I know people who did write in that box because they thought, oh, you know, and they actually went online and they looked up 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, OK, so that one is a design flaw and it’s an education flaw that is on the board of elections to fix. I mean, tell me about what you saw when you saw the back of your ballot. But from the photos that I’ve seen of them, it’s just filled with words and then like one line with an X that maybe you’ll notice, whereas in California they put a big red box around the signature. So, you know, it’s like it’s like they’ve done everything they can except like put flashing lights, like sign here or your vote won’t get counted. You know, there needs to be more education. I mean, I would suggest just like filming an educational video, that you throw it on YouTube, you try to make it go viral. It’s just like this is exactly what you do to this talent and get your vote counted.

S1: There’s this other issue you raised, which is this need to be postmarked. And I want to talk a little bit about that, because it gets into how even the people in charge of this process don’t know 100 percent what they’re doing, because in the lead up to this election, the governor was really clear, like, OK, 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?

S2: Yeah, well, first of all, there’s a difference in messaging between Mei-Ling and Postmarking. So, you know, you think that the deadline is June. Twenty third to mail something. You think I can drop it in a corner post office box and I’m good to go. I did. I did my duty. But it needs to be treated a lot more like your taxes, really, where you need to get in there and watch the teller postmark this thing to know that it’s that’s happening, which kind of defeats the purpose of, like, not going into a building to vote completely.

S1: 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 elections board and the U.S. Postal Service.

S2: What’s happening is 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 just under extreme pressure. They had seventeen thousand employees who had to be quarantined because of exposure to the coronavirus, because they’re frontline workers. And then, you know, 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 US Postal Service to move mountains.

S1: I can hear the empathy in your voice for these institutions like USPS and Board of Elections, but at least the Board of elections in New York, they don’t have a great history of managing elections like in the last few years. They were accused of purging the voter rolls. And so I feel like there’s also this kind of gap in trust for sure.

S2: Yeah, they were they were accused of purging the voter rolls in twenty sixteen and the head of the board of elections was asked to step down. And that person is still in charge. Yeah, there isn’t a lot of trust that they can handle this. And, you know, it’s also their job to communicate with the Postal Service about what is going on and what needs to happen.

S3: The big thing is that when the ballots were sent out in like a very nice gesture, they were sent out with postage, paid return business class envelopes. So you don’t have to put a stamp on it. You don’t have to put a stamp on it. But this kind of business class postage return mail is not typically postmarked, you know, because it’s free. So you just stick it in the mail and it goes to where it’s supposed to go. And 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, which seems to point to one Brooklyn post office, just not quite knowing what they were supposed to do, arrived without a postmark to the board of elections after the twenty third, which automatically invalidates that.

S1: So just to be completely crystal clear here, you saw this. The state sent out ballots to people with a business class return envelope so people didn’t have to pay postage. They required a postmark of the day of election. But that envelope is not an envelope that you put a postmark on, Trent. Yikes, I mean, here’s the question, though, isn’t that something that could be solved, like couldn’t the governor say, OK. I messed up here, clearly, the intention was for everyone to be able to vote and and put these in the mailbox on Election Day. That didn’t happen. So I’ll just invalidate this rule about postmarks.

S2: Yes. That conceivably that’s what could happen. But the governor has chosen to punt this. So I sent him numerous queries about this and I just got back from his office, things that he said in press conferences. And every time he was asked about this in a press conference, he said this is the job of the state legislature.

S1: Oh, boy. I mean, what really emerges listening to your reporting is just these layers of dysfunction. So I wonder now that all this has happened. Is it possible that New York is going to get it together for November?

S2: I do think that New York could possibly take some of these lessons and implement them for November. I mean, the thing is that this is just one district isolated within a very blue state. And every state has a different set of laws and problems with their board of elections. I mean, 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.

S1: You know, you mentioned that you had friends that you knew had filled in places on the envelope or the ballot where they weren’t supposed to write. It made me wonder, like, what are you telling your friends about voting in November? How are you planning yourself to maybe vote differently next time you’re doing it?

S2: Well, I am. As someone who’s been out reporting on the pandemic for so long, I guess I’m a little more risky in my behavior. So I go in person, if at all possible. But there are these interesting. Yeah, I just I mean, I’m taking precautions. I’m wearing a mask. I wash my hands, I don’t touch my face. I’m just I’m social distancing. I’m doing whatever I can to be safe. But I have always been someone who just felt better voting in person.

S1: It was kind of reinforced by everything you’ve seen.

S2: Yeah, I think so. Like being able to watch my ballot be scanned with. You know, I don’t have the same concerns that so many other people do. What I did hear was that people who dropped off the mail in ballots in these boxes that were at polling sites didn’t have to deal with the postmark issue and those ballots were automatically counted. There are ways to sort of skip the line at a polling place, drop it off in a box and know that it’s going into the pile that will be counted for sure.

S1: It sounds like you’re saying just like cut down the number of potentially dysfunctional agencies and organizations your ballot will encounter. Like if you can not deal with USPS, great. Just make sure your ballot gets where it needs to go. You’ll be better off.

S2: Yeah, and it does require a little bit more risk than maybe some people are comfortable with. And I for them, I would say request your ballot as early as you possibly can and hope that the fulfillment happens in a timely fashion.

S4: Yuan, thank you so much for joining me. Thanks so much for having me. Jada Yuan covers national politics for The Washington Post. The absentee ballot count just wrapped up for the 12th District. Incumbent Carolyn Maloney is claiming victory with 3700 votes more than search Batel. Patel is acknowledging that lead, but he’s not conceding. He’s citing those thousands of ballots that got invalidated and he says he’s still intending to go to court. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Daniel Hewitt, Jason de Leon and Mary Wilson with help from Daniel Avis.

S1: We are led by Alicia Montgomery and Alison Benedict. Tomorrow, make sure you tune into what next TBD. Henry Gerberas. They are hosting with another installment in his series on the future of the city. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll catch you back here next week.