Grown-Up Brooklyn's Adventures in the Kingdom of Mumblecore

I don’t want to bury the lede, so the answer to the question concerning whether I believe Lena Dunham’s explanation that she actually voted in the 2012 by casting an affidavit ballot from Manhattan is:


I will explain why shortly.

First an explanation.

I am a fan of Ms. Dunham’s who happened upon this story (to the extent it may still be one) by accident. I was looking for something else.

Everyone in Brooklyn politics believed that there were five vacant Supreme Court seats up this year in Kings County.

Four vacancies were supposed to be occurring because their occupants were turning seventy. Judges are supposed to retire at 70, but Supreme Court Judges—and only Supreme Court judges-- over 70 are allowed to be certificated  every year for fitness once they reach 70, and can thereafter serve until age 76.

But the year they turn 70 their seats are considered vacated and filled at the next general election.

Last year, the Brooklyn Democrats were persuaded to ignore politics and ethnic balance considerations and elevate from other Courts two very important and prestigious, but non-political, judges who they were told were turning 70 this year.

Though the image of political parties is otherwise, Party Leaders are loathe to ignore the wishes of the entire Unified Court System, especially when headed by a Chief Judge who was a boyhood friend of the Assembly Speaker.

In addition, some of the District Leaders actually practice law, and thought this was a good thing to do for the place where they earn their livings.

Not everyone was happy, but the deal was done, and whatever the motivations of the players, the cause of good government was actually served.

Then a Councilman (not named Lew Fidler) told me it wasn’t true—that at least one of the judges was only turning 69.

I also heard this from a District Leader decidedly not on speaking terms with that Councilmember.

So, I emailed a political consultant who is one of the people I call upon when such questions arise from time to time.

He gave me a birth date for one of the judges in concern which was in 1944. This would mean he was only turning 69.

I reported it to others.

There was panic in the streets.

I was told by folks who should know that it could not be true, and if it was true, worlds would collide.

I went to the Board of Elections yesterday at lunchtime and checked the stats.

Everyone who was a matter of concern was born in 1943. They were all turning 70 this year.

The world was saved.

But when you are sitting in front of a terminal containing access to a database with the address, voting history and date of birth info for every voter in the entire City of New York, the thing which killed the cat often gets the best of you.

That bullshit-artist/fabulist who fancies herself the ultimate coastal Brownstone community activist—is she really on the up and up?

Hasn’t voted since 2010. Lies like a rug.

Then, like every married middle aged male (and probably every female), I got the Facebook urge to take a “where are they now” tour of my exes.

The half-Jewish Costa Rican (I call her the Kosher Rican) was still living in the Heights, in that building where the local paper said Lena Dunham bought an apartment.

I wondered, was she on the same floor with Lena?

She was. But something jumped out from Lena’s page.

Lena had no voter history at her present address, and she had transferred her registration there before the election.

There was no record of her voting in any election since 2008.

And she had cut a very controversial web-video for the President’s re-election campaign, specifically criticizing voter apathy among young female voters.

Who could resist writing what was clearly going to be a national story?

So, I posted it.  

The links came fast and furious. More for one post than I'd gotten for all my posts combined in seven years of blogging.

The anger came faster and with even more fury.

I was a truther (even though I posted the results of a search of public records)  I was a right winger (even though my critique of Dunham’s not voting was that of an exasperated liberal frustrated by the inconsistent voting patterns of young voters). I was a pig for making double entendre jokes (even though I was writing about a person who had posted a notorious video comparing voting to fucking). I was writing about something no one cared about (and thousands of links said exactly that).

Then came Lena’s response:

“Hey kids, some people on the internet are saying I didn’t vote. Some of them are still mad I used a sexy metaphor re: voting. Read on: I did vote. I tried to get an absentee ballot but, because our nation’s voting system is a steampunk cornmaze, it didn’t arrive…So not to be a martyr about it but I flew to New York to vote. I wasn’t sure if my change of address had officially been registered so… …I went to my old polling place with my dad, where they let me vote by affidavit (what was totally allowed.)”      

So how credible is that?

Well let’s start with this November 5 Twitter Exchange:

 Julia Berndt: I know you're out and about in India. But, you did vote, right?

Lena Dunham: Big time RT.

Of course, it may be that Dunham was lying then, and not now. Still, not helpful as a measure of credibility.

Lena: I tried to get an absentee ballot but, because our nation’s voting system is a steampunk cornmaze, it didn’t arrive,”

This may indeed be true, though it might just be the vagaries of international mail, rather than systemic failure (though it can be argued that relying on mail in 2013 is systemic failure).

I should add that if there really was an absentee ballot application, it can probably be located by some persistent reporter

Lena: So not to be a martyr about it but I flew to New York to vote. I wasn’t sure if my change of address had officially been registered so… …I went to my old polling place with my dad

Now picture this. It is Election Day. You wake up and don’t know whether, when you visit your polling place, your name will be in the books. Despite your place as a political spokesperson, you are unaware that the motor voter law allows you to swear out an affidavit, and cast an affidavit vote at your new polling place and transfer your registration by that act. So, instead, you decided to forgo your two block walk and instead travel to Manhattan, where needless to say, you are also not sure that you are still registered.

Further, you choose to travel to Manhattan at a time where the City is still in a post-Sandy shambles, with gaps in the subways causing inconvenience even on those lines still operating. With parts of the City, including those in both your area and your father’s, which are still without power. With travel on some bridges and roads restricted. With a gas shortage causing a concomitant shortage of cabs.

And not knowing if you are any more likely to be in the scribe books at your old polling place than at your new one.

 I am reminded of a session back in the 90s binding petitions at Kings County Democratic Headquarters.  

I was laying each sheet on the hook which would then be closed with a fastener, when I noticed one was slightly shorter than the others, even though it contained the same candidates.

Closer inspection revealed that the top portion of the sheet containing the Congressman and State Senator had been sheared off and a replacement portion from a different sheet carefully and artfully taped on in its place.

It was obvious someone had carried a sheet with the wrong candidates in that election district, and someone tried to remedy it post hoc.  Ironically, the names of the new Congressman and State Senator were also the wrong ones. The sheet had but one signature on it, but the subscribing witness was the District Leader himself.

Fraud committed by a candidate would permeate that petition as to that candidate. One signature and Ralph would be off the ballot.

“Ralph,” I said, “can you explain this?”

“Well” he said, “I came to this women’s house and she signed the sheet, and then we realized it was the wrong sheet, so I, in her presence, cut off the top, and taped the new top on it”

“Really,” I said, “wouldn’t it have been easier just to have her sign the other sheet?”

Jeff Feldman picked up the sheet.

“Ralph, if petition sheets were judged by their heart being in the right place, then this would be the best petition sheet of all time”    

He then ripped it to shreds.  

Lena’s story of being unsure her name would be in the book at her new polling place, and therefore taking an inconvenient  trip across the river where her name’s presence would also be unsure, is somewhat, but not much, more credible than Ralph’s story, but it does defy logic.

Which is not to say it could not have happened.

Lena: I went to my old polling place with my dad, where they let me vote by affidavit (what was totally allowed.)”      

As an Atlantic article defending Dunham’s story notes:

The Board of Elections in the City of New York explains on its page providing information regarding "voting on election day" that one of the circumstances in which you are allowed to vote on a paper ballot is:

If your name does not appear on the list of registered voters or if your signature is missing from that list, you will be given an affidavit ballot and an envelope in which to seal it in. At the close of the polls, the sealed envelopes are brought back to the Board of Elections offices where your registration will be verified before your ballot is canvassed.

The catch normally is that, if you go to the wrong polling place, your vote will not be counted. Your vote will only be counted if you are registered to vote and go to the right polling place. Chances are that a vote like that wouldn’t even be logged into the database.

But, as I noted a few weeks ago, this year was different.

This year, and only this year, it “was totally allowed.”

Because of Hurricane Sandy, 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.

If she did indeed cast a vote, Lena Dunham’s ballot did not count for Congress, State Assembly and judgeships (which probably didn’t matter to someone who has never voted in an off year election), but did count for President, US Senate, and the New York State Senate (Brooklyn Heights and Tribeca being in the same State Senate district).

But was it credible that Ms. Dunham’s vote did not appear in the Board’s records?

The Politicker reports:

Though Ms. Dunham’s voter history file does not show her as having participated in the election, the BOE said they are “still working on the voter history for last year’s elections” and do not have complete information for everyone who submitted affidavit ballots in the presidential election. Records show Ms. Dunham, an unaffiliated voter, cast a ballot in the 2008 presidential election and successfully changed her registration’s address to Brooklyn at a later date.

This time, the credibility question is not for Ms Dunham, but the Board.

When the Board of Elections counts affidavit ballots, it must first check each ballot in its data base, to see if it is eligible to be counted. This year, this was further complicated by having to check each ballot for which races it could be counted in.

Normally, when one does that, one also logs each voter’s participation into the database at the same time. To go back and do it later would be a preposterous waste of time and taxpayer money. So, normally, the Board's assertion that they weren't done yet would be a lie, or an admission of wasteful stupidty.   

But this year, it is credible that the Board would do the logging in later, even though it could require the expenditure of far more man hours.

As I reported, the huge number of affidavit ballots cast this year, and the extra effort counting them required, caused the Board to blow multiple deadlines. There was, in fact, a danger that candidates would not be certified before the date they had to take office.

Shortening the process, by doing the data entry after the new year began, may have been a waste of time and money, but it would surely, when multiplied by thousands of ballots, speed the process of counting the ballots and certifying the election.

Is it credible that the Board made this decision?

Yes, it is.

Is it also credible that the data entry might already be complete, but the Board is covering its tracks in case it fucked up?  


Do I believe Ms. Dunham?

I don’t know; what I do know is that by the time anyone will be able to find out the real answer, the whole thing will be forgotten.

In the meantime, in the event that Ms. Dunham did tell the truth, I apologize for the aggravation I have caused her. I’d rather apologize in error than not postpone doing so until no one is any longer paying attention (even if the fault really lied with others).   

Lena; please remember to vote this year, and in 2014.