Botched New York Ballots Sap Confidence as Mail Voting Begins

A botched mailing to New York voters last month has shaken confidence that reforms enacted by the state after a chaotic primary have been sufficient to ensure a smoother election.

As many as 100,000 ballots went out in September with return envelopes imprinted with wrong names -- a problem because voters can’t sign an envelope bearing someone else’s name.

“It doesn’t give you confidence this is going to be the only mistake,” said Suraj Patel, who conceded defeat in a Democratic congressional primary in June after legal struggles to get more mailed votes counted.

Botched New York Ballots Sap Confidence as Mail Voting Begins

In response to reports of late-arriving ballots and missing postmarks in the primary, the state eased procedures for voting by mail -- an option millions of residents are choosing despite President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims that it will enable fraud.

The changes may not be enough to meet the deluge, said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit public education organization. The state expects upwards of 5 million absentee ballots, five times the number cast during the primary and 12 times the number in the 2016 general election.

The primary not only brought to light problems with the state’s “highly technical” election process, but underscored the need for resources, Horner said, adding that counting absentee ballots is labor and time intensive.

“Whether the state has adequate resources for elections, I believe is going to be the big issue as to whether New York’s elections are run in a progressive way, or turn out to be a dumpster fire,” Horner said.

Among the new procedures are ones designed to get mail-in ballots to voters earlier and permit officials to prepare them in advance for quick counting. Ballots with a postmark on or before Nov. 3 will be counted if received by Nov. 10. The city has also added more staff and is using an online application to reduce the backlog.

The changes weren’t enough for Patel, who backed voting by mail but is now reluctantly changing his advice.

“For Nov. 3, we’re urging every single person to vote early and in person. It shouldn’t be like this,” Patel said in an interview.

Patel, a challenger to Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney, didn’t concede until late August. He said there were 11,000 invalidated ballots, affecting one in five mail-in voters in the district.

Trump’s Response

New York’s problems caught the eye of Trump, who re-tweeted coverage of the September mailing glitch. During the Sept. 29 presidential debate, Trump cited the contest for Maloney’s seat, saying, “They have no idea what happened.”

Botched New York Ballots Sap Confidence as Mail Voting Begins

Maloney said in an emailed statement that “every single valid ballot” in the primary was counted, “and any suggestions to the contrary are simply designed to undermine faith in our election process. I am fully confident every valid ballot will be counted in our November election as well.”

During the primary, New York City election workers couldn’t respond quickly enough to the slew of requests for mail-in ballots, said Douglas Kellner, a co-chair of the state Board of Elections and a Democrat. “Unfortunately, there were many thousands of voters who did not get their ballots in time because the system was so overwhelmed,” he said.

“The bottom line is that yes, it’s a very difficult situation, but we are striving to rise to the challenge,” Kellner said.

The time given to implement all the changes has been “insufficient, frankly,” said Peter S. Kosinski, the state election board’s Republican co-chair.

“Am I going to say this is going to be error free? No,” Kosinski said, adding that there’s going to be a learning curve for boards and voters alike.

“This is not a New York-centric issue as I see it,” Kosinski said. “I think it’s going on all over the country and hopefully we’ll get through this and the election will be conducted properly.”

Errors Inevitable

Valerie Vazquez-Diaz, a spokeswoman for the New York City Board of Elections, didn’t respond to phone and email requests for comment.

Experts say errors are inevitable as the pandemic has driven an unprecedented surge in mail-in voting across the U.S.

“Any time you’re changing systems, there’s a level of adaptation,” Benjamin Hovland, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said in an interview. “There can be learning curves, or challenges, to deal with.”

The Election Assistance Commission compiled a report on lessons learned from this year’s primaries. The document told election officials there could be “unforeseen mailing issues.”

Still, said Hovland, “Overall I’m very confident with the process.”

The system needs to perform well or risk tarnishing voting by mail as an option, said New York state Senator Alessandra Biaggi, whose bill expanding access to voting by mail became law in August.

“We cannot mess this up again,” Biaggi said in an interview. “Voting by mail is one of the safest ways to vote during a pandemic.”

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