ALBANY — New York’s quest to keep voters safe from COVID-19 by letting them vote by mail in the June primary has led to big delays in tabulating results, concerns about disenfranchisement — and questions about whether there will be an even bigger mess in the fall.
Election officials say it will take them until early August to finish counting a tidal wave of absentee ballots that overwhelmed a system which typically handles only around 5% of the vote. About 1.8 million New Yorkers requested mail-in ballots for New York’s primary.
Voting ended June 23, but the results of many races, including two closely watched congressional primaries, are still unknown.
A bigger problem than the delays, though, is that thousands of votes cast in good faith are getting invalidated during the counting process, candidates and good-government activists say.
Some ballots are being knocked out because voters forgot to sign and date them; others because envelopes lacked postmarks that would indicate whether the ballot was dropped in the mail in time to beat the voting deadline.
President Donald Trump’s press secretary, Kayleigh Mcenany, in a press conference this week lambasted New York’s vote counting as an “absolute catastrophe” and a reason to question voting by mail.
Candidates and voting rights groups, including the Brennan Center for Justice, are pushing state lawmakers to fix procedural problems now so the issues don’t repeat themselves in the general election in November, when even more people may try voting by mail.
New York City elections officials have refused to release statistics on the number of invalidated votes. But Suraj Patel, a Democrat locked in a close primary race with U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, said 30% of mail-in ballots received in the Brooklyn part of the congressional district were being rejected.
“This election and New York’s response, including the Senate and the Assembly, is providing Donald Trump with a blueprint to game the November elections unless they act,” Patel said.
The plan to let voters cast ballots by mail was hatched hastily and announced in April as the coronavirus outbreak was killing hundreds of people a day in New York City and its suburbs.
In the midst of the crisis, the state never provided extra funds to prepare election workers who would be handling mailed ballots or to hire extra staff to count them.
Many voters who applied for absentee ballots didn’t get them until the last minute, leaving them wondering whether they should vote in person or try the mail and potentially miss a deadline to have the envelope postmarked by June 23.
Compounding that problem, the state’s attempt to make things easier for voters by giving them postage-paid return envelopes backfired: The U.S. Postal Service doesn’t usually put postmarks on that kind of metered mail, and while its policy is to to add the postmark to mailed ballots, it admits it failed to do so on some envelopes.
Candidates and activists are now claiming in a lawsuit that thousands of properly cast ballots mailed in on time were invalidated because they lacked postmarks.
The state Board of Elections said it’s too early to know how many ballots didn’t make it out to people in time, or were discarded because the Postal Service failed to postmark them.
“It’s very unfortunate that the Postal Service was unable to fully carry out what they have acknowledged was their responsibility in postmarking the mail,” said state board of elections spokesman John Conklin.
A spokesperson for the Postal Service said it is addressing the issue.
Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah — have conducted all elections by mail for years with relatively streamlined systems, while 21 other states allow localities to opt into mail-in elections, according to National Conferences of State Legislatures.
Common Cause New York Executive Director Susan Lerner called it “unacceptable and unfortunate” that so many absentee ballots are being disqualified.
“Right now an absentee ballot can be discarded if a cautious voter puts tape on their envelope to make sure the ballot doesn’t fall out,” she said.
Her group wants lawmakers to allow voters to request absentee ballots earlier and allow election workers to start counting absentee ballots sooner after Election Day.
Lawmakers could revamp a system widely viewed as outdated. By Thursday evening, the state Senate passed bills to accept absentee ballots received by June 24, ensure voters fearful of catching COVID-19 at polls can vote by mail in November, and give absentee voters a chance to fix deficient ballots.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has voiced support for lawmakers tweaking the state law that lays out the time period when absentee ballots can be accepted.
But it’s unclear whether New York will allow election workers to count all ballots lacking a postmark, including those received days after Election Day. Patel, Maloney and other candidates have called for Cuomo to update his executive order to protect June 23 primary voters from disenfranchisement.
And lawmakers plan to hold a hearing in August on how election workers have handled the spike in absentee ballots.
“We’re studying the issue from a system-wide point of view. And any changes we can make, we will,” Cuomo said.
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