NEW ROCHELLE, NY — Hundreds of voters in New Rochelle were disenfranchised in a recent school election when their ballots were improperly voided. The wrongly disqualified ballots were just a part of long-standing systemic issues with absentee voting that was exacerbated when Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered local elections, including school elections and party primaries, to be conducted through universal mail-in voting.
Accepted ballots were significantly miscounted and misreported, 12% of all received ballots were voided and just under 30% of those were wrongly voided. Among those whose ballots were voided are well-known figures in the community including three elected officials: a Westchester County Legislator, a City Council Member and, ironically, a School Board Trustee. Election officials failed to notify voters their ballots were not counted.
A large number of accepted and voided ballots were stored in unsealed cardboard boxes, in violation of New York State election law. In hundreds of cases “secret” ballots were stored attached to the related oath envelope and not sealed in individual envelopes, also in violation of New York State election law, so the identity of a voter casting a particular ballot was readily available.
Eight of 13 Election Districts reported inaccurate information on ballots received, accepted and voided. In one “ED”, the Election Inspectors reported 2,576 ballots received in an ED with just 2,309 register voters.
In another, a candidate received 6 more votes than there were ballots.
These irregularities and many others were uncovered during a three-month long investigation into the June 2020 New Rochelle school election, an investigation which was ramped up after school officials admitted in July they had not maintained records of how and why ballots were voided.
Rachel Relkin, who was elected School Board President in July and was not in charge of the school election in June, issued a brief statement on our investigation.
“The Board has no comment at this time,” said Relkin.
The investigation comes despite repeated stonewalling by school officials and the sudden, unexpected resignation of the person who ran the election, two weeks after our inquiry into election irregularities began.
Long-time School Board Clerk Lisdalia Saraiva quit in the middle of the Annual Reorganization Meeting July 7, implausibly claiming she was retiring after three decades because she disagreed with the Board’s decision to remove Amy Moselhi as Board President. Moments after the Board voted to elect a new Board President, the entire board received Saraiva’s resignation letter via email.
Talk of the Sound has been seeking access to election records since shortly after the ballot canvass was certified by the New Rochelle Board of Education on June 18th.
Talk of the Sound belatedly obtained access to the election documents under a Freedom of Information request granted in late August.
Given the volume of records covered under our FOIL request, the School Business Official set up tables in a conference room with glass walls where a District employee monitored our work at the District’s Central Office located within New Rochelle City Hall. On any given day, we had up to three people reviewing records so a corresponding number of records from up to three Election Districts would be brought from the Central Office vault to the “fish bowl” conference room.
For each Election District there was a sealed pink bag for accepted ballots, a sealed yellow bag for voided ballots, a blue sealed box on wheels for the signature book, list of registered voters, instructions and forms, and, inexplicably, an unsealed brown cardboard box containing both accepted ballots and oath envelopes and voided ballots and oath envelopes.
When asked why about half the ballots were secured in sealed bags and why the other half were dumped in an unsealed cardboard box, school officials declined to comment.
A team from Talk of the Sound spent two weeks collecting and inputting data: four days going through boxes filled with ballots, logging information on every voided ballot and related oath envelope in every Election District (over 1,000 records) then six days inputting that data into a voter registration database containing more than 48,000 voter records.
The result is the only comprehensive database of details on every voided ballot in the June 2020 school election: name, address, voter ID, where the record was stored, whether it was secured and how, the Election District for each voided ballot, what reason, if any, was given for voiding a ballot along with our own assessment of a reason, if any, for voiding a ballot, and, if the actual ballot was visible, how that person voted in the election.
The top line numbers are an estimated 9,000 ballots received (not the count of 12,452 ballots in the official record) of which we counted 1,071 voided ballots (not the 1,067 voided ballots inferred in the official record) for a void rate of 12%.
We assessed that 297 ballots were voided incorrectly, primarily because registered voters were not added to the voter register (signature book) or because the ballot was delivered to the wrong Election District and Election Inspectors only checked ballots against the register for the ED where they were assigned rather than cross-check ballots against the entire registered voter list covering all EDs. Other reasons include failing to check for hyphenated names, married names/maiden names, address issues, or minor typos like a “U” instead of a “V” in a name.
We found 479 out of 1,071 voided ballots (45%) were not stored in the sealed (yellow) bags — along with a comparable percentage of accepted ballots — but rather in unsealed cardboard boxes in violation of New York State Education Law.
We found 468 completed but uncounted ballots among the open voided ballots (the remaining ballots were sealed in oath envelopes; we did not open or otherwise alter any of the records). Of those 468 ballots, we were able to identify with absolute certainty the identity of the voter for 407 of those ballots and 90% certainty for 44 of those ballots (e.g. the oath envelope had no name but an address and only one voter was registered at that address).
The vote on the school budget referendum among voided ballots where a ballot was visible was 243 “Yes” and 174 “No” votes which is proportional to the overall outcome of the election.
The school board candidate race showed a similar proportionality.
Based on this data there is no direct evidence based on a review of just the voided ballots that the outcome of the election would have been different if all voided ballots had been accepted (and more than half were voided correctly) but, as we will see, there are far more problems than just the one-third of voided ballots that were voided incorrectly so it is impossible to project the true outcome without a full audit, a recount of every ballot.
The paper-trail strongly suggests that Election Inspectors were inadequately trained and unprepared for the sudden shift to universal mail-in balloting.
“I was there while the votes were being counted and while I had very little confidence in what I witnessed I can say while I am appalled to learn of the many irregularities I cannot say I am surprised,” said board candidate Michael Leone.
He is not alone.
JUNE 2020 New Rochelle School Election Series