By Greg B. Smith
The city Board of Elections sent absentee ballots to some Brooklyn voters with return envelopes bearing strangers’ names and addresses, THE CITY has learned.
In those cases, if a voter fills out their presidential election ballot and sends it in as instructed, their vote could be attributed to another person.
As of late Monday, THE CITY had received calls and emails from several voters affected by the apparent screwup in at least five neighborhoods: Sheepshead Bay, Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, Park Slope and DUMBO.
Victoria Edel, of Sheepshead Bay, said she received a return envelope with the name and address of a woman who lives one street away and has a last name that begins with a D.
“This is not my ballot, we have this random lady’s ballot — it’s like they messed this up in a big way,” said Edel, 28.
Valerie Vasquez, a spokesperson for the city Board of Elections, blamed a vendor hired by the agency, Phoenix Graphics of Rochester, N.Y., hired to print and distribute absentee ballots in Brooklyn and Queens.
She said the board is trying to understand the scope of the problem and what to do about it.
“We are determining how many voters have been affected but we can assure that the vendor will address this problem in future mailings, and make sure people who received erroneous envelopes receive new ones,” she wrote in response to questions from THE CITY. “We will ensure on behalf of the voters in Brooklyn that the proper ballots and ballot envelopes are in the hands of the voters in advance of Election Day so they can vote.”
— NYCBoardOfElections (@BOENYC) September 29, 2020
A message sent by THE CITY to Phoenix late Monday was not immediately returned. The Board of Elections in May awarded Phoenix a $4.6 million contract to handle absentee ballots.
The contract was a negotiated acquisition, which means that there was no competitive bidding. Phoenix was the only vendor contacted by BOE for the job, the city comptroller’s Checkbook NYC system shows.
Votes Would be Voided
The voters who contacted THE CITY reported receiving their absentee ballots in the mail Monday as requested. Each got a ballot along with an “official absentee ballot envelope” into which they were instructed to place their filled-out and signed ballot.
They’re then supposed to seal that envelope and place it into another that’s addressed to the city Board of Elections in the county where they’re registered to vote.
In the problem cases that emerged Monday, the official absentee ballot envelope contains the name, address — and presumably a specific identifying barcode — of a different person.
So if a voter did as instructed — filled out the ballot, signed it, placed it in the internal envelope and sent it to the Board of Elections — they would be effectively voting on behalf of someone else.
These votes would ultimately be voided because the signature is matched to whatever is on file.
It’s a two-step process: When the voter sends their ballot in, it would become identified by bar code as belonging to somebody else. The Board of Elections would then compare the signature and cancel the vote.
Michael Carey, 55, Crown Heights, said the official ballot return envelopes he and his wife received were tagged with the names of neighbors down the block.
When he called the Board of Elections, he said a worker told him the problem was caused by an unspecified vendor hired by the BOE to handle the huge wave of absentee ballot requests.
“They took my information and we’re just about ready to hang up and I said, ‘What do we do here? I want to vote absentee. How do we resolve this?’ They said we’ll be in touch,” Carey said.
“It’s appalling that they can make a mistake like this and so close to the election,” he added. “It seems like the voters are the last concern of the Board of Elections.”
A voter in Prospect Heights, meanwhile, received an envelope with a neighbor’s name and address.
‘It seems like the voters are the last concern of the Board of Elections.’
He contacted the woman, who said she got an absentee ballot addressed to her — but with an envelope tagged to her boyfriend. The boyfriend got a return envelope with the name of yet another voter who lives a block away.
And a registered voter in DUMBO received an absentee ballot from the Kings County Board of Elections with an official envelope listed to another voter with an address in a different building around the block.
Mail-in Ballots Key
The confusion came weeks before an election that’s likely to draw a record number of absentee ballots in New York and around the nation amid the pandemic.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has consistently cast doubts on the mail-in system to the point of refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the Nov. 3 contest.
In June, New York’s first pandemic primary was plagued by low voter participation and various complaints — including from voters who said they never received absentee ballots or only got partial ballots.
New York voters have until Oct. 27 to request absentee ballots by mail, email, phone, online or by fax.
Some New Yorkers who have already received their ballots also report being confused by the text on the ballot, labeling it as an “official absentee military ballot.”
The Board of Elections responded on social media that the ballots were valid and that this language was printed on every absentee ballot. Absentee ballots during the June primary were printed with the words “Absentee/Military.”
Note: absentee ballots say “Official Absentee Military Ballot” in the top corner. This is the correct ballot, even if you are not serving in the military. pic.twitter.com/IbtAcdJqL5
— NYC Votes (@NYCVotes) September 28, 2020
“It’s definitely unclear and confusing and some clearer messaging would’ve been nice!” said Stephen Parkhurst, of Astoria, who requested his ballot the first week of September.
Election attorney Sarah Steiner confirmed that the absentee and military ballots are identical, and are processed the same way by the Board of Elections.
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.
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