NY Nightmare: Our Pandemic-Election Risk Assessment Looks At CT, DE, DC, NY, OK

We’re taking a state-by-state look at the places that appear most ready for a pandemic election, and the places that could be in for a big mess.
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October 2, 2020 2:28 p.m.

It’s hard to imagine a bigger reminder of the threat that COVID-19 continues to pose than the news that President Trump has tested positive for the virus. And this week we continue our state-by-state look at how election officials are trying to keep voting safe in the pandemic.

On tap for this week are: Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Oklahoma, and the District of Columbia.

Where have election officials worked out the kinks of their summer primaries? And where has the chaos already begun to infect the general?

Here’s this week’s installment of our survey, and check out the other states we’ve examined.

Jump to a state:
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New York

Voter advocates were feeling cautiously optimistic that New York had taken steps ahead of the general election to correct the issues that plagued its primary this summer. Then mail-in ballots started hitting voters’ mailboxes.

Scores of voters in New York City have received ballots or ballot envelopes meant for other people. The city elections officials have blamed the fiasco on a vendor issue and are planning another mailing of 100,000 new ballots to cover all the voters who were potentially affected.

But the debacle has amped up anxiety that New York’s general could be as rocky as its primary, after which the results took several weeks to report in some races and fights broke out over how to count ballots that were missing a postmark. This time around, if voters submit the ballots that they were mailed erroneously and that weren’t meant for them, those ballots will be rejected — though, if the voters in question then show up to vote in-person, they’re in-person ballot will be counted instead. The need for voters to pay for absentee ballot postage — something that was covered for voters during the primary — is also prompting concern, particularly as voters have reported receiving contradictory guidance on how much postage their ballots will require.

“It’s a total nightmare,” said Jennifer Wilson, the deputy director of New York’s League of Women Voters. “Anything that can go wrong is going wrong.”

New York has historically been one of the least-voter friendly places, a fact that flew somewhat under the radar — due to its Democratic control and lack of swing state status — but one oft-cited by Republicans to defend the shortcomings of red states.

Last year, legislators finally passed a much-needed overhaul of the voting system, but it unfortunately did not contain exactly the kind of reforms that the pandemic would require. After Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) by emergency order expanded absentee voting for the primary, it became clear that election officials, particularly in New York City, lacked the infrastructure that could handle this summer’s surge in mail-in voting. Confusing ballot design exacerbated the June primary’s chaos.

The legislature has since passed a package of measures aimed at avoiding a repeat of this nightmare. It included a codification of the option voters have to cast ballots absentee because of COVID-19, a clarification around the postmark rules and the creation of a statewide online portal for absentee ballot applications. A recent lawsuit also made it easier for voters to avoid having their absentee ballots rejected for minor discrepancies.

Just as important, however, may be the provision in the 2019 legislation that made early in-person voting available for the first time ever in New York — an option that could help voters overcome the doubts about the latest mail ballot fiasco, as well as lingering concerns about the U.S. Postal Service.

While the overwhelming blueness of New York City precludes much drama over statewide races, several U.S. House races will be closely watched as Dems aim to continue their 2018 gains in previously Republican-leaning suburban communities.

District of Columbia

The nation’s capital isn’t up for grabs in the presidential race, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be trouble ahead despite the fact that President Trump isn’t contesting the District’s three electoral votes. For November’s election, D.C. instituted significant changes in response to COVID-19, making vote-by-mail universal and agreeing to send ballots to all registered voters. Those changes came after the District ran into trouble during its June primary, miserably failing the test presented by the pandemic’s spike in absentee voting while leading to calls for the resignation of top election officials.

The problems in June were myriad, featuring long lines for in-person voting that extended into the early hours of the morning after the District opened 20 polling stations as opposed to a normal- year count of 143. The surge of people was partly caused by board of elections failures in coping with more than 90,000 requests for absentee ballots, as opposed to the typical 6,000 or so requests it’s gotten in previous elections.

That disaster may turn out to redound to the District’s benefit, however. Following that debacle, local government officials enacted wide-ranging changes that include more than 50 secure drop boxes around the District for ballots, and a program to mail a ballot to every registered voter without any request needed. Election officials will accept mail ballots as long as they’re postmarked by Election Day and arrive by Nov. 13 — 10 days after the date of the general election. The District will have 90 polling locations open on Election Day — fewer than the typical 143, but enough, experts say, to allow D.C. to avoid the June debacle. Local government officials are also experimenting with new technology allowing voter registration signatures to be submitted via smartphone, while District officials say that they anticipate having enough poll workers to do the job come Election Day.

Delaware

Delaware just wrapped up its late-in-the-calendar primary two weeks ago. Aside from small, quickly resolved voting machine glitches and some minimal confusion about moved polling places, the day went smoothly. Turnout, including by mail, was incredibly high especially given that it was a relatively non-competitive primary. The General Assembly passed a bill in June allowing universal vote by mail for the primary and general elections. About 43 percent of voters cast their ballots by mail in the September primary, compared with just 5 percent in the 2018 primaries.

The state Republican party filed a lawsuit in late August arguing that the expanded access to mail ballots was unconstitutional. A judge shot down that argument on Monday, and the party has indicated that it does not intend to appeal the decision. The League of Women Voters filed a separate, ongoing lawsuit lobbying for ballots to be counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day and arrive by November 13. Currently, Delaware is only counting ballots received by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

While the state’s general election doesn’t present any close races of national importance in Delaware (which Joe Biden represented in Congress), there were some notable results from the September primaries. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), the heavy favorite to win reelection, is facing Republican challenger Lauren Witzke, an open supporter of the Q-Anon conspiracy theory. Delaware is also likely to have its first ever transgender state senator in Democratic nominee Sarah McBride.

Connecticut

For Connecticut’s August primary, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) signed an executive order allowing all registered voters to vote absentee due to the pandemic. That left a state used to handling four to six percent of the vote in absentee ballots, partially due to its normally strict excuse requirement, facing a tsunami of ballot requests. All told, 59 percent of the primary vote was cast through mail-in ballots.

There were some glitches in the switchover. A third-party mail vendor, was hired to help get the applications and ballots out to voters. A week before the election, 20,000 voters who requested absentee ballots still had not received them. The President of the Connecticut Town Clerks Association instructed the clerks, who were taking over the mailing, to go through a massive spreadsheet of all 20,000 voters, isolate those in their towns and resend the ballots to ensure the voters had time to return them. She also recommended that voters avail themselves of the drop boxes at town and city halls instead of risking the mail, which in some parts of the state was experiencing days-long delays. The mess dissolved into a circle of finger-pointing with some blaming the vendor and others, including critical state Republicans, blaming the secretary of state for not communicating well with the town clerks.

Those issues were compounded by Tropical Storm Isasias, which made landfall days before the election. Due to mail delays caused by the storm, Lamont issued an executive order allowing ballots to be accepted until Thursday as long as they were postmarked by the Tuesday when the primary took place. As a result, it took days for races to be called.

Connecticut is also mailing out absentee ballot applications to all eligible voters for November, and hoping to iron out some of the hiccups that plagued the primary. The state House this week passed a bill, now in the Senate, allowing election workers to start counting ballots the Friday before Election Day. Republican state Senate minority leader Len Fasano, who has criticized Lamont at every turn, still predicts “mass confusion” and “potential litigation.” Secretary of State Denise Merrill was more optimistic, telling the Hartford Courant that “If we don’t have the storm delay, if we don’t have all the problems with getting things mailed out in a timely way, I think it will be fine.”

Oklahoma

Oklahoma, a deep-red state and therefore not much of a subject of national political interest, earned much of its election-related headlines this year when Donald Trump held an in-person rally there, in Tulsa, on June 20. The event is thought to have led to the death of a former competitor for the presidency, Herman Cain, who attended and shortly afterward was diagnosed with COVID-19.

The rally, free of basically any public health precautions, was a metaphor for the state’s approach to this year’s elections: Oklahoma hasn’t done much to accommodate changes to voting in the interest of public health.

What allowances it has made have tinkered at the margins. For example, the typical requirement that absentee ballots be notarized can be skipped this year, but only if a copy of the voter’s photo ID is included. For those who are physically incapacitated, two witness signatures will suffice.

For a brief moment, the state was free of the notary requirement altogether, after its state Supreme Court struck it down in a ruling in May. But the reprieve lasted just three days before the state’s conservative legislature passed a new law putting the requirement back in place. (That was just ahead of the state’s June primaries, in which voters narrowly opted to expand Medicaid.)

In a ruling earlier this month, U.S. District Judge John Dowdell denied the state Democratic Party’s requests to step in and further loosen those rules and others, such as those limiting who can help a voter request and submit an absentee ballot. The judge also rejected the same lawsuit’s attempts to loosen mail deadlines in light of USPS warnings that late-arriving ballots may disenfranchise voters.

Despite all of the obstacles, state officials expect there to be an increase in votes cast by mail this election cycle, particularly among the elderly. During the state’s March primary election, 4% of ballots were cast by mail. In June, that number went up to 14%.

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