Opinion: The fight for absentee ballots on the quest for democracy

Board of Elections workers count absentee ballots in Brooklyn during the June primaries on July 8.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

Over three months ago, I wrote that New York’s ballot access laws were the hardest in the nation and a threat to our democracy. Since then, I became the first incumbent in anyone’s memory in Brooklyn to be knocked off the ballot without even facing an opponent.

It’s still not clear whether I will be re-appointed to fill my own vacancy. The guys who knocked me off the ballot (one was a district leader) were very badly repudiated on primary election day two weeks ago. When my personal political situation is clear, I will write about it again.

We are facing another threat to our democracy in Brooklyn right now, and it foreshadows an even greater threat we will be facing nationwide in November – the security and sanctity of our absentee ballots.

A lawsuit filed on Wednesday in federal court notes that in 2018, New York had the highest percentage of absentee ballots rejected — votes thrown away — in the nation. Thirty-four-thousand New Yorkers — 14 percent of all absentee voters — had their votes discarded.

This fall, many more of us will cast absentee ballots than we did two years ago. It is easy to imagine that the Dominant Man of Our Current Era (to our misfortune) will use uncertainty about the election result to try to maintain his grip on power despite his widespread and prolonged unpopularity. Indeed, it’s possible to imagine that sentence being true about American politics for a long while to come.

Right now, a New Yorker can’t even find out if their absentee ballot counted. State Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblyman Dan Quart have legislation that will require local Boards of Election to give voters confirmation their ballot was received.They’ve also passed a law to give us no-excuse absentee voting (which Gov. Andrew Cuomo granted this year in an emergency order) but that’s a state constitutional amendment so it requires multiple years of yes votes before it goes into effect.

Right now, more than two weeks after the election, the absentee ballots are only just starting to be counted and many of them are being disqualified. For instance, this year a large number are disqualified for missing postmarks that prove they were sent on time. This is not the fault of the voters but of public officials. First, the post office is a mess. Second, Cuomo ordered the use of pre-stamped envelopes, which the United States Postal Service often doesn’t postmark. In trying to keep people enfranchised in an emergency, he likely disenfranchised thousands of New Yorkers. Maybe many more.

It’s likely these absentee disenfranchisements will alter several election results in Brooklyn. Please sit with that for a second.

The Board of Elections sent out a large number of absentee ballots too late for them to count. This appears to have been especially prevalent in Brooklyn. We will not have fair elections until the bipartisan cronyist BOE system is replaced in this state. But that requires a constitutional amendment. And that requires multiple years of yes votes.

Nick Rizzo is a Democratic District Leader representing the 50th Assembly District and a political consultant who lives in Greenpoint. Follow him on Twitter @NickRizzo.