(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)
In April, the New York City Board of Elections received a late delivery of 1,077 pieces of mail from the United States Postal Service, including what turned out to be 828 absentee ballots cast in the 2017 municipal elections. Of those, the BOE found 533 valid absentee ballots never counted, effectively disenfranchising hundreds of voters through no fault of their own, all of whom were attempting to vote in Brooklyn.
The postal service’s failure was “egregious,” BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan said at a public meeting of the board’s commissioners on Tuesday. “It’s not something that has been brought to my attention in my almost five years as executive director,” Ryan said. “It seems to be an anomaly and we are thankful that the U.S. Post Office has taken responsibility for their failure to deliver the mail as they were required to do.”
According to Ryan, the board received a trove of correspondence in April, including the 828 absentee ballots that had been filled and mailed in by people registered to vote in Brooklyn. Many of the ballots, 295 to be exact, had been postmarked after November 7, the date of the general election, or had illegible or missing postmarks, which meant they would have never been counted. For a ballot to be valid, it had to have been marked before midnight on Election Day and would have to be received by the board no later than seven days after the election.
“In any event that leaves us with 533 individuals who timely delivered their ballot to the post office and for whom the post office did not timely deliver the ballot to the Board of Elections,” Ryan said.
The BOE, which has faced withering criticism for its own failures in election and ballot management in the past, seems blameless in this particular situation. And though the USPS conceded its guilt in an official letter to the BOE, officials offered no plausible explanation of why the hundreds of ballots were simply set aside at a processing facility in Brooklyn for five months before being discovered and subsequently delivered. “They were all first class pieces of mail. So the Board of Elections was under no obligation whatsoever to pick any of that mail up from the facility. It was and remained the Post Office’s responsibility to deliver the mail to us,” Ryan said.
Many of the ballots, he noted, came from university towns such as Rochester and Ithaca, likely meaning they were cast by college students who hailed from the borough. They were also spread out across the borough, meaning they were unlikely to have had a significant effect on any one race. “Not that it made it appreciably better, but if it was something that occurred across the board and didn’t disproportionately impact one district over another, that was certainly better than a circumstance of having them all be concentrated in one area and then potentially cause the outcome of an election to be questioned or reconsidered,” Ryan said.
The 2017 general election in the city included races for the three citywide seats, including mayor, as well as the borough president positions and all of the seats on the City Council. Of those, there was only one remotely close general election for voters in Brooklyn, for City Council in the 43rd district, where Democrat Justin Brannan won by 794 votes.
Ryan insisted that he received assurances the postal service would avoid repeating its mistake and will correspond directly with the BOE’s central and borough offices.
“My conclusion is that the Brooklyn borough staff [of the BOE] did everything that they could possibly do to service the voters in this respect and this happens to be a mistake by the U.S. Post Office,” Ryan said. It was clear that Ryan was sensitive to how blame might be apportioned, particularly since the Brooklyn office was responsible for illegally purging thousands of voters from the rolls in 2016. He also said that, though it was not required, the BOE would in the future send staff to local post offices to pick up bulk mail deliveries during peak election time.
For those whose ballots were not delivered, the BOE will send out individual mailers to inform them that their vote did not count, Ryan said, and their individual voting record will also show scanned copies of their returned envelopes and the post office’s letter of explanation.
“Unfortunately under these circumstances there is nothing the Board of Elections could have done any differently,” he said.
by Samar Khurshid & Caitlin Bishop