October 20, 2020

100,000 New Absentee Ballots Go Out, but N.Y. Voters Are Wary

Two days after officials said that as many as 100,000 voters had received faulty absentee ballots in Brooklyn, it remained unclear how many people had actually been affected, and voters said they were confused and distrusted the process.

The vendor that printed the flawed ballots said on Thursday that fewer than 1,000 ballots had mismatched names and addresses, while officials at the New York City Board of Elections said that it was impossible to know the true number. The board decided to have the vendor send new ballots to all 100,000 voters in Brooklyn who might have been affected.

The misprinted ballots, coupled with uncertainty around issues as basic as how much postage voters have to put on those ballots when they return them, deepened doubts that the elections board can handle a pandemic-era presidential election. Some winners in the June New York City primaries were not declared until August, after tens of thousands of absentee ballots were thrown out because of technical issues like missing postmarks, missing signatures or improperly sealed envelopes.

The mishaps gave fodder to President Trump’s assertions about the flaws of the vote-by-mail system, and during Tuesday night’s fractious debate with the Democratic presidential nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mr. Trump made reference to the June delays in Manhattan. Afterward on Twitter, he mocked the ballot mishap.

State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, a Democrat who introduced the bill to expand absentee voting in November, said there was no more room for error. “How the Board of Elections handles this issue can instill confidence in the system moving forward, but it has to be done to a 10-out-of-10 level of perfection,” she said.

On Tuesday, the Board of Elections said that as many as 100,000 Brooklyn voters received faulty ballots.

Affected voters should expect to receive replacement voting packages beginning next week, election officials said. An unknown number of voters in Nassau County were also affected.

Voters should only send in the new ballot. But if they send in both the old and new one, the second ballot will override the first, election officials said. The second ballots will be distinguished by a red mark that will be picked up by the board’s ballot-processing machines, according to Frederic M. Umane, one of the city’s elections commissioners.

But some voters said the problems went beyond postage and mislabeled ballots. They were also baffled by the ballots themselves.

While the ballot tells voters to “mark the oval to the left” of their choice, the ovals actually lie above candidates’ names. The ballots are also missing a slash between “military” and “absentee,” leading many nonmilitary voters to believe they’d gotten the wrong ballot.

Some voters said they were considering forgoing mail-in ballots entirely, despite the potential health risks. “At this point I’m like, do I just chuck the absentee ballots and try to vote early in person?” said Caty Bennett Gray, a resident of Williamsburg. “But that’s not ideal, because I have a 3-week-old.”

“I’m not sure what I’m going to do, because I just feel like I don’t trust the absentee ballot system anymore,” she said.

Max Yoeli, who lives in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Boerum Hill, has given up on voting by mail entirely.

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“I called the BOE and was 75th in line, so I emailed them to inform them I would vote early in person instead,” he said. “I have yet to receive a response.”

After two days of silence, Phoenix Graphics, the Rochester, N.Y.-based company that sent out the misprinted ballots, tried to temper worries and said that the mistake was isolated to a single print run of 100,000 ballots and affected fewer than 1,000 ballots in that run. Sal DeBiase, the president of the family-owned company, said in a statement that “mechanical-inserting issues” caused the mislabeling.

But election officials said the digital data that could have shown how many ballots were affected was overridden somehow.

“I know that they can’t narrow it down any further than the batch than 99,000-plus,” said Douglas A. Kellner, the co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections. He faulted Phoenix’s quality-control measures.

Earlier this week, Mr. Cuomo’s office stepped in with its own recommendations, which led to even more confusion and turmoil. His aides told the Board of Elections the vendor should send affected voters only new inner envelopes known as oath envelopes — which contained the actual printing errors — but not new ballots.

On Tuesday evening, as word leaked that Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, was interceding, some left-leaning Democratic state lawmakers sounded the alarm, accusing the governor of attempting to disenfranchise voters.

Ms. Biaggi, a frequent critic of the governor, demanded on Twitter that Mr. Cuomo allow “the right ballots” to be sent to voters and threatened to primary him if he did not do so.

About an hour later, Melissa DeRosa, the governor’s top aide, responded bluntly.

“Are you drunk?” Ms. DeRosa, a fixture in Mr. Cuomo’s coronavirus briefings, said on Twitter. “Get a grip.”

Afterward, Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Mr. Cuomo, clarified in a statement that Mr. Cuomo’s recommendation stemmed from the notion that “sending 100,000 duplicate ballots seems to be an overcorrection.”

In the end, however, the Board of Elections went ahead with its initial plan, which election lawyers agreed with: new ballots and new envelopes for all possibly affected voters in Brooklyn.

On Thursday, the governor seemed to be largely staying out of the fray, worrying instead about the potential for the president to use ballot problems in New York — both in the primary and in the weeks leading up to the general election — as a way to cast doubt on November’s vote count.

“There have been glitches,” the governor said. “And Brooklyn was a glitch.”