Final mail-in primary failure rate in New York City: 20.8%

Utter disaster. More than one in every five ballots cast in New York City got discarded in the state’s June 23rd primary, raising all sorts of questions about who actually won the congressional nominations and other races. Voters didn’t get proper instructions, the postal service wasn’t prepared, and that will leave a permanent cloud over all the results:

The mail-in ballots of more than 84,000 New York City Democrats who sought to vote in the presidential primary were disqualified, according to new figures released by the Board of Elections.

The city BOE received 403,103 mail-in ballots for the June 23 Democratic presidential primary.

But the certified results released Wednesday revealed that only 318,995 mail-in ballots were counted.

That means 84,108 ballots were not counted or invalidated — 21 percent of the total.

The prospects for November look pretty grim, too. The Board of Elections rejected efforts by co-chair Doug Kellner to improve the system for the general election:

Meanwhile, the embattled BOE found itself mired in controversy again after emails obtained by The Post show the agency blew off Kellner, who proposed reforms to prevent another absentee balloting nightmare in November.

His six-page proposal urged city BOE officials to ensure proper staffing at polling places during the November election to ensure lines are no longer than 30 minutes; to tally absentee ballots more quickly than the six weeks it took to certify results from the primary; and to plan for processing “double or triple” the number of absentee applications.

If New York produces a 20% or higher failure rate in November, it might skew the entire presidential election. Imagine what would happen in states where the winner would expect a margin of, say, 5% or lower — or under 1%, as was the case in the critical battleground states in 2016. Lawsuits are already in process in New York over the failures in this primary; what would happen if Donald Trump eked out a narrow New York victory because 20% or more of NYC’s vote got disqualified? Meltdown, that’s what would happen.

Once again, this demonstrates that incompetence far outstrips potential fraud with mail-in voting, both in probability and in scope. Eric Boehm argued yesterday at Reason that most states are totally unprepared for mail-in voting, and that pressing the issue risks disaster in three months:

The bigger problem facing states as they prepare for the 2020 general election is not the president’s tweeting or the spectral fears of voter fraud. It’s that there is no time to build out the infrastructure necessary for a full-scale vote-by-mail operation like the ones in Colorado, Oregon and elsewhere.

So far, Congress has authorized $400 million in new spending to help states get prepared for what’s likely to be the weirdest election in recent history, but the Brennan Center says it will take $4 billion in additional election spending to cover the cost of ballot printing, postage, security measures like drop boxes and bar codes, and hiring additional staff to count votes. Hasen estimates that, despite spending more than $3 trillion on coronavirus aid, Congress has provided to states only about 20 percent of what would be necessary to run an election in the middle of a pandemic—meaning not only expanded absentee balloting, but also funding for things like protective equipment for poll workers. …

Even in the vast majority of states that have moved to ease restrictions on absentee balloting in light of the pandemic, a full-scale vote-by-mail system is virtually impossible to implement before November.

In New York City, it doesn’t even appear that they’re interested in trying. It’s not that they couldn’t have known of the issues in expanding mail-in balloting. Boehm points out that the issues of voter incompetence are already well known:

Compounding the logistical problems is simple voter ineptitude. In-person voting limits common mistakes—like voting for too many candidates or failing to sign a ballot—that are more likely to happen with absentee ballots. Research by Charles Stewart, a professor of political science and founder of the MIT Election Lab, an estimated 800,000 absentee ballots were rejected in 2008 by local election authorities, mostly due to mismatched signatures or because they arrived too late.

Absentee and mail-in ballots have higher failure rates under normal conditions. They just usually comprise such a small number of overall votes that it rarely impacts the results. By pushing mail-in balloting to be the most common method, and in doing so as abruptly as we see now, that normal failure rate will explode as it did in New York City — and the normal failure rate would still have made it tough to settle close elections as it is.

We simply can’t sustain that kind of meltdown in a presidential and congressional elections, where hard deadlines for ends of terms exist and the need for confidence is high. If we can figure out how to fill the streets with protesters and the Walmarts with shoppers, we’d better figure out how to do in-person voting with reliable scan-based counting to keep the points of failure to a bare minimum.

Jazz Shaw May 11, 2021 8:51 AM ET