Confused US voters question mail-in ballots after faulty dispatch

New York: 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 confused voters said they now distrusted the process.

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The vendor that printed the flawed ballots said 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 who might have been affected.

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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.

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

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State Sen. 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 instil confidence in the system moving forward, but it has to be done to a 10-out-of-10 level of perfection,” she said.

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The brouhaha over the ballots began Tuesday, when the Board of Elections said that as many as 100,000 Brooklyn voters received faulty ballots.

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On Wednesday night, amid the dispute over the actual number of incorrect ballots, election officials said all potentially affected voters should expect to receive replacement voting packages beginning next week. 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.

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But some voters said the problems went beyond postage and mislabelled 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.

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Some voters said they were considering forgoing mail-in ballots entirely, despite the potential health risks.

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“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.”

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Single print run

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After two days of silence, Phoenix Graphics, the Rochester, New York-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, president of the family-owned company, said in a statement that “mechanical-inserting issues” caused the mislabelling.

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Election officials said a software glitch prevented their knowing how many ballots were affected.

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

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Earlier this week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office stepped in with its own recommendations, which led to even more confusion and turmoil. Cuomo doesn’t control the New York City Board of Elections, a bipartisan group of commissioners appointed by the City Council. Even so, his aides suggested to the board that the vendor should send affected voters only new inner envelopes known as oath envelopes – which contained the actual printing errors – but not new ballots.

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

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Biaggi, a frequent critic of the governor, demanded on Twitter that Cuomo allow “the right ballots” to be sent to voters and threatened to challenge him in a primary election if he did not do so. About an hour later, Melissa DeRosa, the governor’s top aide, responded bluntly. “Are you drunk?” DeRosa, a fixture in Cuomo’s coronavirus briefings, said on Twitter. “Get a grip.”

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Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Cuomo, said Thursday that the governor made his recommendation because “we feared printing 200,000 ballots for 100,000 voters would fuel Trump’s voter fraud conspiracy.”

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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.

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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.

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

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