While the pandemic continues to threaten the safety and livelihoods of New Yorkers, as many as 5 million people may choose to vote absentee in the 2020 presidential election—up from less than the 500,000 absentee ballots mailed out in 2016. "To say this election is the most critical in recent history is understating its importance," Governor Andrew Cuomo said last month, after he ordered every Board of Elections in the state to come up with a plan to ensure that absentee ballots are counted. "We want to make sure every vote in New York is counted and every voice is heard."
Yet Cuomo, who has extraordinary power over the state's budget and who recently made it easier for New Yorkers to vote absentee, has refused to allocate money that election workers say is necessary to meet the staggering logistical challenges posed by the 2020 election. While the State Board of Elections has estimated that it needs $50 million to distribute to localities to ensure that all votes are counted accurately and in a timely fashion, the governor has insisted that the state is too broke to help.
Instead, the Cuomo administration reportedly told state election commissioners that they should tell the local boards to apply for funds through Facebook’s charitable foundation, the Center for Tech and Civic Life.
"Unless the advocates want to lend us their money tree, in the absence of federal funding, there isn't any," said Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the New York State Division of the Budget. "The biggest expense is manpower and the state has offered every board of election in the state National Guard members to augment their election efforts."
Klopott declined to explain how deploying National Guard members to manually count absentee ballots would work.
Good government groups say that the June 23rd primary offers a preview of what could happen if the election infrastructure isn't bolstered. In that election, more than 778,000 absentee ballots were distributed in New York City alone; thousands were discounted from postmark issues, lawsuits were filed, and the votes took weeks to count.
The primary was funded with $20 million in federal stimulus funds and $4 million from the state.
Jennifer Wilson, deputy director for the League of Women Voters of New York, told Gothamist that county BOEs will be hit with an unmanageable deluge of absentee ballots required to be fed through paper ballot voting machines.
"You could have multiple machines and multiple people [inserting ballots], but you still need to have to review the ballots ahead of time. So, they're like reviewing them on the rolling basis, double-checking people didn't vote in person, invalidating the ballots of people who did vote in person,” said Wilson. “It's a lot of very small checking, and then double-checking, and then we gotta check again. And then if there is a problem with the signature, now we have to reach out to the voter and give them due notice and let them be able to address that issue. It's just a lot.”
The challenge of counting the ballots is compounded by the relatively short time that BOEs have to count them: four weeks, beginning on November 10th. As in all presidential elections, local BOEs must adhere to federal mandates that ensure every vote is counted and certified by State Board of Canvassers by December 7th, a week before electors are chosen for the Electoral College.
More workers will also be needed to cure ballots, reducing the ballot invalidation rate. With in-person voters waiting on long lines to prevent crowding inside polling sites, there is a need to both create more sites provide proper PPE.
The League of Women Voters joined Citizens Union, the New York Public Interest Research Group, Common Cause, and Reinvent Albany sent a letter to Cuomo last month urging him to consider funding the election.
“Something is seriously wrong with New York State’s democracy when…local boards of election are so broke they are pleading for funding from a charity,” read the group’s letter, referencing Facebook’s foundation. “Our organizations are acutely aware that New York has a series of brutal budget choices ahead, but funding the state’s democracy and supporting the safety and security of its elections must be prioritized ahead of the most consequential election in recent history."
Betsy Gotbaum, the executive director of Citizens Union, said, “You know they could find $50 million. They could and I don't understand why they don't."
Wilson, of the League of Women Voters, said the lack of state funding will have "a real impact" on the mechanics of the election.
“Upstate [New York], there'll be a mess because there won't be as many people working, there won't be as many poll sites open, there won't be as many people counting ballots on the back end," Wilson said. "I hope we don't see high level of absentee voting error. But yeah, if they're understaffed, and they're rushing to get the counts in time, I could definitely see there being voters who don't have their ballot counted."