NYT: Let's face it -- the mail-in state primary was a disaster

How badly has the state of New York handled its vote-by-mail primary? Only today did the Associated Press make the call on the race in NY-16, concluding three weeks after the election that Rep. Eliot Engel lost to his primary challenger, progressive insurgent Jamaal Bowman — by sixteen points. It took that long to get through enough of the mail-in ballots and navigate the opaque reporting on the count for the AP to reach a firm conclusion in a landslide for Bowman.


That race is no fluke, either. The New York Times reports that some races have only a handful of ballots counted, and that outcomes of many of the primary contests have yet to be determined, more than three weeks after the election day. This portends disaster in November, the Times warns:

More than three weeks after the New York primaries, election officials have not yet counted an untold number of mail-in absentee ballots, leaving numerous closely watched races unresolved, including three key Democratic congressional contests.

The absentee ballot count — greatly inflated this year because the state expanded the vote-by-mail option because of the coronavirus pandemic — has been painstakingly slow, and hard to track, with no running account of the vote totals available.

In some cases, the tiny number of ballots counted has bordered on the absurd: In the 12th Congressional District, where Representative Carolyn B. Maloney is fighting for her political life against her challenger, Suraj Patel, only 800 of some 65,000 absentee ballots had been tabulated as of Wednesday, according to Mr. Patel, though thousands had been disqualified. …

The delays in New York’s primaries raise huge concerns about how the state will handle the general election in November, and may offer a cautionary note for other states as they weigh whether to embrace, and how to implement, a vote-by-mail system because of the pandemic.

The NYT and the state of New York offer all sorts of reasons for the delays in processing. All of them, however, relate directly to the decision to vote by mail and send ballots out to every voter, requested or not. “Outdated technology” only mattered when it came to dealing with mailed ballots. Unprecedented requests for copies of ballots from both parties relate directly to the vast increase in mailed ballots, too. The legal challenges resulting from these haven’t even started yet, which means it will take several weeks more of wrangling over every mailed ballot before the counts can be accepted.


And that’s a big problem in November, as even the progressives are starting to figure out:

Candidates and their campaigns have nonetheless been deeply frustrated by the slow pace, and increasingly concerned about what it portends for the general election in the fall.

“This is just a primary: Imagine November with the presidential race and all the Senate and House races,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive political consultant who serves as an adviser to Mr. Bowman’s campaign. “What’s going to happen to our country?”

The NYT reports that between 20% and 30% of ballots in New York City may have been disqualified, and New York is hardly unique. California rejected over 100,000 ballots in its March mail-in primary for defects, a stunningly high number that calls the credibility of close races into serious question.  And in Florida, nearly twenty thousand ballots got trashed in its presidential primary:

More than 18,500 Floridians’ ballots were not counted during the March presidential primary after many arrived by mail after the deadline.

In Nevada, about 6,700 ballots were rejected in June because election officials could not verify voters’ signatures.

And during Pennsylvania’s primary last month, only state and court orders prevented tens of thousands of late-returned ballots from being disqualified. …

While the number of rejected ballots in Florida and Nevada represents a fraction of those cast in their primaries, the unprecedented shift toward absentee voting during the coronavirus pandemic could make such margins potentially significant in the fall. In 2016, roughly 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin helped Donald Trump win the White House.


The media and the GOP establishment have leaned on Trump to stop attacking mail-in balloting. It’s a worthy criticism to the extent that Trump has confused the issue between normal absentee balloting, which is done by advance request, and the vote-by-mail systems that send out ballots proactively to all voters. Republicans need to work to get absentee ballots in the hands of voters who truly need them, and also to educate them on how to cast those ballots properly and effectively.

The vote-by-mail system, however, truly is a disaster, and not just over security concerns. The timelines in our Constitution are too tight for the kinds of delays seen in this year’s primaries. We are at risk of being without a legitimate Congress as well as a legitimate president by the time the deadlines for both are reached. The only way to ensure that we can meet those deadlines is to vote in person by paper ballots utilizing optical-scan technology for fast and accurate counts. The delay from a relative small number of contests in that system where absentee ballots could make the difference will be easy to absorb, but we can’t wait several weeks to confirm outcomes in races with double-digit in-person vote gaps.

Stop pretending this is a Trump problem. This is an electoral legitimacy problem in more than one aspect, and it’s time we treated it as such. If we can go to Walmart in this pandemic, we certainly can figure out how to vote in person to choose this country’s leadership.


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