A Little Rachmonis For The Board Of Elections

On December 28, the NYC Board of Elections finally certified and published the returns for the election held on November 6th, only 27 days after its legal deadline to do so.

In fact, because of the delay (as well as those in some other parts of the State) the State Board of Elections was forced to certify the election of the State’s Presidential Electors based on preliminary returns which did not include a complete count of what are known as “affidavit ballots.” If they had not done so, NYS’ electoral votes could not have been cast on the constitutionally mandated date (I have also been told that if the Board failed to certify results by January 1, judges elected on November 6 would not be allowed to take office).   

Affidavits ballots are those cast by a voter whose name could not be found in the enrollment book on Election Day (or has been otherwise subjected to challenge). Such a voter is allowed to cast a ballot, but it is put in a sealed envelope. On the front of the envelope is an affidavit the voter fills out where s/he claims either to be a validly registered voter and  fills in the information necessary to make that determination (i.e., address). The voter is then required to sign the statement.

The Motor Voter Law also allows already registered NYS voters who have moved to change their address by use of such affidavits.

Many more affidavit ballots are cast than counted. Many voters show up to vote (especially in Presidential years) who are simply not registered in NYS (or anywhere). Others have gone to the wrong polling place, which is a fatal error. But while many affidavits are the result of errors either by polling inspectors, or in the Board’s own data entry or filing, a lot of ballots are disqualified because a perfectly eligible voter, who through no fault of his own has been denied the right to cast a normal ballot, then makes an error filling out the affidavit envelope. They may forget to seal it, or forget to sign it, or simply leave out required information.

Counting such ballots takes a lot of time. Luckily, the work can begin as soon as the ballots come back from the polling place. The Board is required to check each ballot, determine whether the voter was validly registered, whether they went to the right poll, and whether they’ve signed a valid affidavit, and whether this is the only ballot they cast. Having been through more than one recount, I can attest that the Board does a decent job at this, but not a perfect one. However, unless there is a recount where there are parties motivated to see such ballots are validated and do the search for them themselves, some voters do get missed.

This year, an additional crimp was put into the system.

As noted, normally, a voter must go to the proper polling place to get their vote counted. But because of Hurricane Sandy, these rules no longer applied. The Governor issued an Executive Order which allowed a voter to cast a ballot from any polling place in the state and have it counted in any elections for which that ballot was applicable.

The storm had quite an impact.

In 2008, 2,641,609 valid ballots were cast in NYC’s general election; 108,170 of these were cast on affidavit ballots. That’s 4%.

In 2012, possibly because of the storm, the number of valid ballots cast dropped by nearly 200,000. However, the number of affidavits ballots counted nearly doubled. Of the 2,464.470 NYC ballots cast in this year’s general election, 245,115 were cast by affidavit ballot. That’s just under 10%.

Some of the numbers are pretty stark. In the 46th AD, which includes most of the Coney Island peninsula, affidavits accounted for 6,419 of the 32,808 votes cast, which is just under 20%. In the 31st AD, which includes most of the east end of the Rockaways, affidavits accounted for 7,330 of the 32,022 votes cast, which is almost 23%.

In the 23rd AD, which includes most of the Rockaways (including Breezy Point) and Broad Channel, affidavits accounted for 9.140 of the 31,370 votes cast, a staggering 29% of the votes cast. Other AD’s which included coastal areas subject to evacuation also had affidavit totals of over 10%, including the 45th (Manhattan Beach), the 50th (Greenpoint/Williamsburg), the 51st (Red Hook), and the 65th (Lower Manhattan).

The impact of this order was far beyond that anticipated, but I have to conclude based upon both the data and anecdotal evidence that this was not solely because of the storm.

For instance, of the 29 ADs where over 10% of the votes were cast on affidavit ballots, I count 14 which are landlocked. I know I’m not accounting for in-land flooding or people displaced by the storm for reasons other than coastal flooding, but even accounting for this, it s seems unlikely that the storm is the entire explanation.     

And there are reasons to suspect that it is not.

 Suddenly a voter vacationing upstate who’d forgotten to get an absentee ballot didn’t need to get one. Suddenly, the  Brooklyn voter with the phony Upper East Side address to get their kid into the right public school didn’t need to take a trip into Manhattan on a day when school was off (I know more than one such family). Upon opinion and belief, thousands took advantage of the Governor’s order who had reasons to do so other than the storm.

But whatever the reasons, the result was chaos at the Board of Elections. Unlike in previous years, affidavit ballots kept pouring (perhaps not the best choice of words) in for days from Boards all over the State. All of them had to be checked. And the numbers I’ve rendered are deceiving in that while there were 136,945 more affidavit ballots counted than four years ago, there were surely far more ballots that were not counted, but had to be sorted through before they were rejected.

Further, counting such ballots was a nightmare. While every valid ballot cast could be counted for President and US Senate, each ballot had to be scrutinized to see if it was valid in any other races.

This was easy for some ballots. Ballots cast upstate were good for nothing else. And ballots cast in the same county were good for countywide judicial races.

But then it got tricky. A ballot cast in the same county might be good for State Assembly, State Senate, Congress or a Municipal Court race, or any combination of those, or none of them. A Brooklyn ballot cast in Staten Island or vice versa, might also be good for State Assembly, or not. A ballot cast in another borough might or might not be good for Congress or State Senate. A ballot cast in Westchester might also be good for both Congress and State Senate, or either, or neither. And a ballot cast in Nassau or Suffolk might be good for Congress or not.

 Sorting this out was surely a logistical nightmare, and while it could be argued that the storm was a nightmare that the Board should have anticipated, the Executive Order created issues no one could reasonably have thought of until they occurred. Some of those required rulings from the State Board, which caused further delay (for example, could a ballot from upstate be counted for local races in the City if a voter altered his ballot to list a candidate for Assembly, Senate, or Congress who was actually running in his home district? Apparently, many voters did just that, but the State Board said no).

I am not saying the City Board should be entirely left off the hook. I am sure this could have been done better. I know there is incompetence at the Board. The recently posted election results provide one clear example.

Behold, here is the Board’s link for the results of the 52nd AD Assembly race held on November 6, 2012:

 Kings Member of the Assembly 52nd Assembly District Recap (pdf)

Since I anticipate this will eventually be corrected I will spoil the fun by saying that the Board instead posted the results for AD 51 twice.  (Then again, it may never be corrected. I note that the Board has yet to act on my repeated requests, made beginning over seven years ago, that it post the results of the 2005 Kings County primaries for Surrogate and Civil Court Judge it omitted back then).

 That being said, I think every article written on this so far (and sadly, that means only me, the Daily News, and Gary Tilzer), has failed to note that while the Board failed miserably in its task, its task this year was somewhat daunting.  

I will never stop making fun of the Board of Elections, but sometimes a little rachmonis is in order.

And this is one of those times.  

While I’m pretty sure a better run operation could have done the job faster, I also think even the best operation possible would probably have blown multiple deadlines.