Ellis and her husband Len, who live in Tribeca, submitted their mailed ballots in person at a New York City Board of Elections location in Lower Manhattan on Oct. 21, three days before in-person voting started. She checked repeatedly for activity to appear on the Board of Elections’ tracking system, where a ballot can be traced like a UPS package.
“Knowing I would be able to track, I would have the reassurance,” Ellis said of her initial view on the mailed ballot process. After a week of no activity for both ballots that were slipped into the same collection box, she and her husband learned from an election supervisor that their ballots were lost.
This is the first presidential election in which New York City, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, is using early voting, and the city’s elections board has been plagued by problems. Early voting has drawn a staggering number of voters to fewer than 100 locations across the city, in part fueled by fear that the U.S. Postal Service could not be trusted. Poll workers attempt to enforce social distancing rules on outdoor lines that coil around city blocks, creating wait times of up to four or five hours.
In recent years, the board’s administration of elections has been widely criticized following a series of gaffes representing what many believe is chronic dysfunction in the agency. That prompted Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) on Wednesday to call for the board’s overhaul, urging the state legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) to pass reforms that would “professionalize” the organization, which has a history of patronage appointments, and update its existing “arcane” structure.
In September, the board acknowledged that a batch of 100,000 mail-in ballots mostly sent to Brooklyn residences were unusable because addresses on the outer and inner envelopes didn’t match. In 2016, more than 200,000 city residents who were registered to vote were purged from the system, prompting a lawsuit by then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
Schneiderman, who resigned in 2018 facing accusations that he physically abused women, sued the New York City Board of Elections in 2017, resulting in a consent decree mandating an overhaul of the registration system.
The biggest issue for the Board of Elections has been the interminable lines at some early voting sites, which are just a small fraction of the number of sites expected to be open on Nov. 3. While 88 locations have been open for early voting around the city of 8 million people, 1,200 sites will be open to voters on Tuesday. Some voters have had to travel significant distances to vote early, but their Election Day sites are typically a short walk from their homes.
Voter turnout in New York City thus far is as remarkable as it is daunting for those tasked with waiting hours in sometimes disorganized lines.
Since the first day of early voting on Oct. 24 through Friday, over 800,000 people voted citywide, with a steady turnout in all five boroughs each day.
Hundreds of thousands of mailed ballots from city residents — out of more than a million requested — have been processed. Absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by Nov. 10 will be counted toward the final tally.
At one polling spot on the Upper East Side, the line has been so oppressively long that an incumbent candidate for the state assembly worked to secure a second site at Marymount Manhattan College, which will be open this weekend.
Rebecca Seawright, who represents a large portion of the neighborhood where the Robert F. Wagner Middle School polling site sits on East 75th Street, was prepared to sue the elections board Friday morning after fielding daily complaints from residents, including from people who are elderly and disabled, about prohibitively long wait times.
Seawright said 118,000 people were assigned to vote early at the public school, including people from Roosevelt Island, which is accessible to mainland Manhattan by subway and aerial tramway.
The number of voters assigned to Wagner is the highest assigned to any early voting site across the state. Those who brave the lengthy queue typically wait between three and five hours, Seawright said, and on Thursday and Friday people were standing for hours in the pouring rain.
The scene at the school has been one of daily disorder.
People who brought completed ballots they received in the mail were waiting for hours because they had no clue what to do with them. The drop-off box was inside the school at first and wasn’t moved to the sidewalk until days later, Seawright said.
“It was mass confusion,” Seawright said. “There were no signs that said end of line, start of the line.”
Her plan to sue the elections board was aborted Thursday night when the board agreed to use the college she secured as a second early polling site for the neighborhood. Voting will be open there Saturday and Sunday.
State election law, she pointed out, mandates that voters wait no more than a half-hour to take part in elections. In her district, the line has wrapped around the block three times.
“This is nothing more than clear and simple voter suppression,” she said. “Voter suppression of senior citizens, voter suppression of people with disabilities and voter suppression of working women and men.”
The distribution of registered voters to early polling sites has proven wildly uneven.
Nicole Ellis, the Tribeca resident with the ballot issue, went to vote in-person early on Wednesday after learning hours earlier that the elections staff did not know where her ballot was.
The supervisor she spoke to earlier in the day issued new ballots for Ellis and her husband, but then they accidentally sealed them in each other’s envelopes after filling them out at home. The Ellises were met with a pleasant surprise when they ultimately decided to go to their poll site: a 20-minute wait.
Board spokeswoman Valerie Vazquez-Diaz, in response to a request for comment, did not say whether there were other reports of missing ballots at the office Ellis went to.
“There are no missing ballots,” Vazquez-Diaz said. “As you can imagine, the staff is working around-the-clock to scan the absentee ballots and in some cases are experiencing a backlog due to volume. Every absentee ballot dropped into the Board’s secure ballot box will be scanned and counted.”
The city tested early voting last November and again for the primaries earlier this year but it has not been previously used in a presidential election.
Election lawyer Sarah Steiner said the Board of Elections is sometimes left “aiming for moving targets.” Compounding the problem of not knowing what turnout to expect is the belief that some people choose not to vote because “confidence in the [board] is low,” which the New York-based attorney added is “foolish.”
“You don’t give up your right to vote because somebody took two weeks longer than you thought” to count absentee ballots, Steiner added.
Two sports arenas have been utilized for early voting — Madison Square Garden in midtown Manhattan and Barclays Center in Brooklyn. At the Brooklyn Nets’ home site on Saturday, residents assigned from a wide area in Brooklyn wrapped around two large city blocks waiting to get to the box office area to cast their ballots.
Perry Grossman, a senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, said the past week has demonstrated “an enormous amount of enthusiasm” for voting but exposes a weakness in the structure now in place to accommodate the longer election process, especially given the voting draw this year.
“The good part is interest and the bad part is — it is a form of voter suppression,” Grossman said. “Not all voter suppression is the result of ill intentions . . . and we don’t have enough early voting sites in this city.”
One issue: Voters can only vote at their designated polling places, including during early voting. Planning the election this year has brought a host of challenges for the Board of Elections, including that sites traditionally available to reserve for voting were unwilling to due to coronavirus concerns.
Other cities, Grossman said, have setups where voters can go to any site. “If you start with a blank state and all available technology of course it’s possible,” he said. “Enormous cities and counties in the U.S. allow this to happen. New York City can do this, too.”