Traditionally, with election night comes a deep exhale. For candidates and staffers, it’s the culmination of many months spent door knocking and phone banking, preparing for debates and town halls, and doing whatever it takes to get their message to the voters. No matter which way the vote goes, there’s relief in knowing the result. But that’s not the case for several of New York’s primary contenders. Four weeks after the vote, candidates across the city are still holding their breath.
The coronavirus pandemic upended the way candidates campaigned during this election cycle, and now, it’s upended the tabulation process. The city’s Board of Elections has been swamped by the unprecedented number of absentee ballots it received for the primary election, a result of the state prioritizing vote-by-mail as a precaution during the pandemic.
Hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots were mailed in across the city, and in some key races in Manhattan, only a small fraction of them have been counted, which has heightened tensions between campaigns. Most notably, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney’s fate as the representative of the 12th Congressional District hangs in the balance as she maintains a tight lead over challenger Suraj Patel.
After the in-person ballots were counted on Election Day, Maloney led Patel by only 648 voters. About 65,000 more absentee ballots came in from the district, but according to the candidates, more than 12,000 of those ballots have been deemed invalid by the Board of Elections, due to either missing postmarks or ballots received past the deadline.
Last week, all four candidates, including Peter Harrison and Lauren Ashcraft who received a much smaller portion of the in-person vote, put out a joint statement calling on the BOE to accept all ballots missing a postmark.
“The Board has already agreed to count ballots received without a postmark before the 24th — now we are asking that they agree to count all ballots received without a postmark,” the statement read. “Put bluntly: A missing postmark, over which voters had no control, should not disenfranchise those voters. We stand together in asking Governor Cuomo to update his executive order to permit the Board of Elections to accept all absentee ballots received without a postmark.”
Some candidates, like Congressman Jerry Nadler, have been spared the long, drawn-out counting process. Earlier this month, the Associated Press declared Nadler the victor over challengers Lindsey Boylan and Jonathan Herzog in the Democratic primary for the 10th Congressional District. The AP’s analysis of the absentee ballots showed that Nadler’s lead was too great to surpass.
Martin Rather, who has been running Cameron Koffman’s challenge against incumbent Assembly Member Dan Quart in the 73rd District, said the process has been frustrating, and particularly tough not to be able to give supporters an update.
“We really have had a lot of people that want to reach out after the election, but the unfortunate thing is you can’t really update them,” said Rather. “But it’s been a great time to reflect and kind of not be attached to an outcome you can say, ‘OK, here are some things we did well and here are some things we didn’t think we did well.’”
In the 73rd District, 20,000 people requested absentee ballots, and a little over 13,000 of those ballots were returned, according to Rather. Of those ballots, 2,500 have been declared preliminarily invalid. But so far, only a portion of the affidavit ballots, which are voters fill out on when their names are not found in the voting rolls at a polling site, have been counted so far.
Rather has been on hand for the tabulation process at the BOE’s warehouse facility on West 33rd Street in Manhattan, and said arguments between the two campaigns over whether a ballot is valid or invalid can get heated.
Last week, Koffman posted a short video of a Quart representative and a BOE official in a tense argument on Twitter. “Shameful. My opponent yelled at a BOE employee to try and get a ballot invalidated. We should be trying to expand democracy, not restrict it. The ballot was ultimately ruled valid! Tensions high today,” Koffman wrote.
In the video, the BOE official can be heard saying, “You don’t get to bully people, tone it down.” The Quart representative responded, saying he was simply making a record of what was going on, and said the official was out of line. Another worker then separated the two.
Koffman later deleted the tweet.
Jeff Coltin, a writer from City & State, reported that Koffman’s post resulted in election workers confiscating electronics from poll watchers, as cell phones are not allowed to be used during the count.
Harry Manin, who has been in charge of the Quart campaign’s absentee ballot process, described a much different atmosphere.
“During my time there, everyone’s been warm and constructive,” said Manin, adding that it was not unusual for campaign representatives to ask questions. “BOE staff are working diligently and under the toughest of circumstances.”
Implications for November
The long wait for results has made many anxious about whether the process will be as sluggish in the fall.
Michael Ryan, the executive director of the city’s BOE, told the New York Times last week that the board had not hired additional staff to count the absentee ballots, and it was unclear whether the board plans to do so in the fall.
“While I appreciate the public’s desire to know the results, at the end of the process we must ensure the integrity of the elections and the accuracy of the results,” Ryan told the Times.
Rather said he was concerned about the nationwide implications for a slow return of results in November, and hopes New York learns for this experience.
“I hope that this process and what we’re going through now will lead to reform so that by the time we get to November, the BOE will be in better position,” said Rather. “But right now I would just think given the pace, that looks unlikely. And I think that’s unfortunate for anybody who cares about democracy.”
“A missing postmark, over which voters had no control, should not disenfranchise those voters. We stand together in asking Governor Cuomo to update his executive order to permit the Board of Elections to accept all absentee ballots received without a postmark.” Statement from all four candidates in the 12th Congressional District