In sprawling warehouse spaces in each borough, New York City Board of Elections workers are laboriously sifting through more than 125,000 absentee ballots under the watchful gaze of campaign workers and volunteers, in a tally that could ultimately tip the scales in one of the highest stakes local elections in modern history.
Counting of absentee ballots began on Monday, and most of them are expected to be accounted for by Tuesday, July 6th. At that point, the Board of Elections plans to rerun all the ranked-choice voting tabulations including absentee votes, which could shift the balance in tight city council and borough president races, as well as the mayoral race.
On the 8th floor of a glassy office building near Hudson Yards in Midtown this week, election workers sat along four rows of tables, opened ballot envelopes, and held them up in the air while campaign workers watched and scribbled on scraps of paper if it was a vote for their candidate. Some campaigns kept their own unofficial tallies to cross-check the board’s, and then all those ballots are then sent off in plastic bins to be scanned into the board’s mechanized system in another room.
“You have to kind of train your eye to figure out which side of the ballot you’re looking for,” said Kyle Ishmael, a volunteer with former federal prosecutor Alvin Bragg’s campaign for district attorney, who’d previously worked on State Senator Brian Benjamin's comptroller campaign until he conceded last week. “Once you get your eyes to train on exactly what it is you’re looking for and where your candidate is, it’s fairly easy, but tedious.”
During the BOE's preliminary count of in-person votes (from both early voting and Primary day) showed just under 15,000 votes separating two mayoral front-runners, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, and showed Maya Wiley getting eliminated in later rounds, falling behind Garcia by fewer than 350 votes. This means if she picked up an outsized number of absentee ballots she could make it to the final round over Garcia. And while City Councilmember Brad Lander started election night 63,000 votes ahead of City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in the race for New York City Comptroller, Johnson had closed the gap to just over 21,000 voters after ranked-choice tabulations were run.
The most outstanding Democratic absentee ballots are from Manhattan (at 39,596), but Queens and Brooklyn are right behind that with 35,482 and 32,527 respectively. An additional 12,943 are from the Bronx and 5,022 are from Staten Island. Election night results before any ranked-choice tabulations were run showed Garcia led Manhattan, while Adams carried all other boroughs for most votes.
Experts say anything can happen. But based on a look at which electoral districts had the most absentee ballots, “It’s unlikely that Wiley leapfrogs Garcia,” said Neal Kwatra, a political consultant with Metropolitan Public Strategies, though how the absentee votes shake out between Garcia and Adams is harder to predict. “[Garcia] has an advantage in Manhattan that is clearly going to [help her] make up some ground,” Kwatra said, but he pointed to the combined 70,000 ballots from Queens and Brooklyn voters where Adams has a leg up. “Brooklyn and Queens are going to be important here,” he said.
At the Manhattan counting facility Thursday morning, BOE watchers said Adams' mayoral campaign had the most reliably stable of volunteers and campaign watchers seated at the row of tables to review opened ballots. City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, said he’d been overseeing the campaign’s operation at the Manhattan site and been there for most of the ten-hour-long days, except to step out briefly to vote on the city council budget on Wednesday.
“Our role from Team Adams is to be sure that every vote [is] counted, that it’s a fair process and we've been here since Monday we'll be here for the rest of the days,” he said.
While the mayoral race had been thrown into chaos earlier in the week when the BOE mistakenly released ranked-choice voting tabulations that included tens of thousands of dummy ballots that hadn't been cleared from an earlier test run, absentee ballots in Manhattan were being sifted and sorted in at a calm and reliable clip.
Changes to the state law that went into effect last year gave voters a second chance to correct errors made on absentee ballot envelopes, like a missing date or signature. An analysis from Gotham Gazette found that after those changes were put in place there was a significant drop in the number of absentee ballots tossed out by the BOE; about a fifth of ballots were invalidated during the primary last year, which dropped to about 7% in the general election, though envelope issues typically account for a small chunk of ballots that are thrown out.
However, while voters in an actual polling site get a second and third try if they make a mistake and need a fresh ballot, an absentee voter just gets one shot to correctly fill out their ballot. If they’ve filled in too many bubbles, signed their name, or written on the ballot, it gets thrown out—no ifs, ands, or buts.
Martin Rather with the November Group, a ballot access consulting firm who was watching the counting Thursday, said he’d seen a handful of ballots tossed for scribbles, initials and in one particularly sad case, a person who’d written, “Sorry, I made a mistake please don't invalidate that ballot.”
“The Board of Elections ruled that ballot was invalid,” Rather said. “It’s unfortunate because a lot of people here took the time, thought about the issues, cast their vote and they’re still not getting their vote to count.”
A spokesperson for the Board of Elections didn't immediately return a request for comment.