NEW ROCHELLE, NY — President Donald Trump has warned for months that universal mail-in balloting will be “catastrophic” for the United States and bad for him, portraying the push for widespread voting by absentee ballot as part of an effort by Democrats to “steal” the 2020 Presidential election.
Recent local elections throughout New York show that while Trump is right about the chaos— a sudden infusion of mail-in ballots into New York polling centers this past June resulted in a confused, chaotic mess rife with errors, double-voting, forged signatures, miscounts and delayed vote counts — he is wrong that mail-in ballots will help Democrats win in November — a large percentage of voters failed to return ballots by mail and of those who did many ballots were completed incorrectly and disqualified. Still more were voided incorrectly, disenfranchising an even larger numbers of voters.
This helps not hurts Trump because Biden supporters are far more likely to vote by mail and believe somewhat naively that voting by mail is simple and easy, that their ballot will be kept secret and secure and that their ballot will be accepted and their votes counted. In reality, voting by mail is complex and difficult, absentee ballots are not secret and many ballots are voided without notice to the voter, often voided without justification.
This highly partisan issue would, for obvious reasons, not present itself in a Republican or Democratic Party primary like New York had in June where no voter or all voters are registered Democrats. It would, however, show up in a non-partisan election like school board races where any registered voter can vote. The June school elections are the canary in the coal mine.
A deep dive into a recent school election in New Rochelle, New York, the 7th largest city in the state, explains why: less than 17% of the ballots were returned by voters and of those 14% were voided, many because voters failed to properly complete and sign the “oath envelopes” in which completed ballots must be sealed and many more because poll workers, often under-trained and overwhelmed, voided ballots they should have accepted while accepting ballots they should have voided.
For New Rochelle, the thoughtless rush to voting only by mail was a double-shot from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo who had, just a few weeks earlier, declared the City the nation’s first (and only) Coronavirus Containment Zone — sending in the National Guard, converting a popular park into the state’s first drive-thru COVID-19 testing center and closing schools and houses of worship throughout the Zone.
Much has been made by the President of the six-week delay in counting ballots in two New York City congressional races — Ritchie Torres in the South Bronx and Representative Carolyn Maloney in Manhattan/Queens — as local politicians pointed fingers.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other officials are trading blame for the botched counting in the city, and the Postal Service is coming under criticism over whether it is equipped to handle the sharp increase in absentee ballots (New York Times).
One of the biggest concerns of election experts with the primary elections was that many ballots would be wrongly voided. As our investigation shows, this is precisely what happened in New Rochelle where hundreds of voters were disenfranchised.
Local school elections are important contests where control over two-thirds of local property taxes is up for grabs across the State.
“This is not an earth-shattering kind of election however every election is important and our school board leaders are certainly essential to the welfare of generations to come,” said Pearl Quarles.
Quarles, whose ballot was among those voided in June, is a member of the Westchester Senior Citizens Hall of Fame. She was the first African American woman to serve as County Legislator in Westchester and first African American woman elected as President of the New Rochelle Board of Education.
“I think it’s despicable that anyone would stoop so low as to disenfranchise me or any other citizen who took the time to deliver a vote for their choice of candidate,” said Quarles.
The problems began in early May when Cuomo abruptly declared that no polling locations would be open for school and primary elections and all ballots would be delivered by mail. When some Districts around the State struggled to print and mail ballots to voters on a timely basis, Cuomo extended the deadline by a week. Despite this, hundreds of people contacted Talk of the Sound to say no one in their household had received a ballot in the days before the voting deadline.
“It is a sad state of affairs for these sorts of issues to still be occurring in 2020,” said Tim McKnight, the Director of Residential Services for the New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority and a recent school board candidate.
“Whether it is one vote or thousands of votes not counted, it’s the responsibility of those in power to insure that this basic right is honored to its fullest extent. Failing that, election officials are not fulfilling the democratic ideals of our country.”
McKnight said he was especially concerned that despite significant delays in printing and mailing absentee ballots before the voting deadline, drop-in ballot boxes were not only not made more widely available but as the deadline approached were actually removed from minority neighborhoods throughout the City.”
To understand why mail-in ballots benefit Trump first consider that prior to COVID-19 only 5 states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington) had experience with voting by universal mail-in ballots. Their boards of elections implemented mail-in voting over time allowing for training and working out kinks in the system.
Since the arrival of COVID-19, California, New Jersey, Nevada, and Vermont added voting by universal mail-in ballots. In addition, Montana, Nebraska, and North Dakota will allow individual counties to decide whether to implement universal mail-in ballots. 34 states have eliminated the need for an excuse to obtain absentee ballots.
The boards of elections in those states are about to drink from a firehose.
The New York Times reported that 76% of voters this fall will have the option to vote by absentee ballot and about one-fifth of voters will receive a ballot in the mail without requesting one.
CBS News found 60% of voters believe “voting by mail in their state will be easy” and “just one in five thinks it will be either inconvenient or difficult”.
Far more Democrats say they prefer to vote by mail than Republicans: 50% of Democrats do, compared to just 14% of Republicans. And while just a third of independents prefer to vote by mail, this rises to 56% of independents who say they lean Democratic.￼ (CBS News)
Rasmussen Reports found 50% of Democrats expect to vote by mail and “most voters are confident that their vote will be fairly counted”.
CBS News found that voters who prefer to vote by mail support Biden by a margin of 81% to 14% over Trump.
The situation in New Rochelle shows the reality is starkly different.
President Trump will benefit from mail-in balloting because many voters who receive ballots by mail do not return them. For traditional absentee voting where voters pro-actively request a ballot, just 80% of voters return those ballots. When voters are sent ballots they did not request the figures are far lower.
Voting by mail is a complex, legalistic, multi-step process that can be confusing for many voters.
In New Rochelle, many voters told Talk of the Sound they simply gave up without casting their ballot. For those that did send back their ballot many failed to put their name and address on the front of the oath envelope, and/or to sign the back of the envelope and/or to seal the envelope resulting in a voided ballot.
New Rochelle City Council Member Martha Lopez-Hanratty, who was surprised to learn her school election ballot was voided because she failed to sign the back of her oath envelope, sees her experience as a learning opportunity.
“I was almost sure that I had signed it,” said Lopez-Hanratty. “I intend to use this opportunity to educate my constituents about how easy it is to have your vote disqualified.”
Lopez-Hanratty is the former Director for Hispanic Affairs for Westchester County. She was elected to the New Rochelle City Council last November.
She says she sees the need to simplify “the Byzantine absentee ballot process” so errors can be corrected in order for every vote to be counted.
There are about 48,000 registered voters in New Rochelle. The Official Canvass states there were 12,452 received ballots so based on this about 26% of registered voters sent ballots returned them but we estimate the actual number of received ballots adjusting for miscounts in ED 5, ED 10 and ED 12 is more like 9,000 received ballots so less than 19% of registered voters sent ballots returned them.
Of those 19% of ballots that were returned, a significant amount were voided and not counted. The tally sheets for New Rochelle state there were a total of 1,076 voided ballots (our count is there are 1,071 voided ballots) so based on 12,452 received ballots that is about 8.5% of received ballots were voided but based on a more accurate estimate of 9,000 received ballots it appears more like 12% of received ballots were voided.
For a more complete report on the June 2020 New Rochelle School Election read the 12-Part Series Below.
JUNE 2020 New Rochelle School Election Series