City election officials enlisted the firm behind the Brooklyn absentee ballot bungle to handle an elaborate do-over even as Gov. Andrew Cuomo called Wednesday for a simpler approach aimed at fending off White House attacks on mail-in voting.
Earlier this week, Phoenix Graphics sent out a print run of 100,000 absentee ballots that included an untold number with return envelopes that included the wrong voters’ names, addresses and bar code IDs. Most of the botched ballots went to Brooklyn, with a much smaller number — 800 — winding up with voters in Nassau County, L.I.
The upstate company, which apparently scrambled voter information data sent by the city Board of Elections because of a failure to update software, plans to mail whole new ballot packages to affected would-be voters at the board’s behest.
But Cuomo, who has no control over the city BOE, called for merely sending corrected envelopes instead. “There is nothing wrong with the actual ballots and sending 100,000 duplicate ballots seems to be an over-correction,” said Richard Azzopardi, a spokesperson for Cuomo.
The governor and others fear resending the same ballots to people who may have already filled them out and returned them could give ammunition to President Donald Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting, which will play a huge role in the pandemic-clouded Nov. 3 election.
“They’re all confused, all mixed up,” Trump told reporters Wednesday. “Now they say they’re going to redo them. Well, what are they going to do with 100,000 ballots that have already been sent? This is exactly what I’m talking about.”
In response to Trump’s remarks, several New York politicians Wednesday emphasized that Phoenix Graphics’ error should not seed mistrust in absentee ballots — and promised the affected voters would get new ballots well before Election Day.
“This is yet another lie and a blatant attempt to suppress the vote,” Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted. “He’s scared he can’t win fairly so he’s doubling down on cheating.”
‘We Have to Get This Right’
Meanwhile, players on both sides of the political aisle worried the debacle could affect the competitive race in the 11th Congressional District, which includes Staten Island and part of southern Brooklyn. Freshman Democratic incumbent Max Rose is engaged in a tight swing-district contest with Republican Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis.
“Are we going to lose that chunk of voters in that area?” asked Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte, who is also chair of the Kings County Democratic Party. “So we have to get this right.”
On Wednesday, Phoenix Graphics issued a brief statement that did little to explain what went wrong. Phoenix CEO Sal DeBiasi claimed the firm experienced “mechanical insertion issues for Kings County and Nassau County. We estimate this affected less than 1 percent of ballots.”
DeBiasi did not respond to repeated calls, messages and emails from THE CITY seeking an explanation for the blunder.
As THE CITY reported Tuesday, the Rochester-based firm favors Republicans in its campaign donations, with $75,000 of its $109,000 in campaign checks going to GOP candidates and committees over the last decade.
The Board of Elections awarded a $4.6 million no-bid contract to Phoenix Graphics in May, despite never having contracted with the outfit before.
City Board of Elections Director Mike Ryan also declined to provide any explanation for what happened other than to blame Phoenix for problems with its “first print run” of ballots. New ballot packages are set to go out beginning Friday — at Phoenix’s expense.
Assemblymember Chuck Lavine (D-Nassau County), chair of the Elections Law Committee, said Phoenix had failed to upgrade its software before downloading voter data provided by the Board of Elections — and had no backup data to double-check that the ballots were being sent out properly.
“Phoenix had a glitch with its software and should have updated the software and did not update it’s software,” Lavine said.
State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) noted, “Clearly something or many things went horribly wrong here that will require oversight and stricter regulation going forward. The more immediate goal is to make sure that people get the correct ballots so they can vote.”
Some Urged to Vote in Person
On Wednesday, candidates running in competitive southern Brooklyn and Staten Island districts told THE CITY that the ballot mess was troubling and that the Board of Elections needs to reassure voters.
Rose, who drew many of his votes in his 2018 victory from the Brooklyn portion of the district, said his office has been in contact with the governor’s office as well as the city and state boards of election.
“My sole focus right now is on making sure my constituents’ votes are not discounted because of incompetence by the BOE or its vendors,” said Rose. “It’s important we communicate facts, not rumors, and speak with one voice. Whichever decision the board pursues to rectify the situation, it needs to be communicated clearly to everyone what happened and how their vote will count.”
Malliotakis, who is Brooklyn’s only GOP lawmaker in a district shared with Staten Island, called for the BOE to deploy more staff to communicate with voters.
“Many voters, especially the elderly and infirm, are worried that their vote won’t count in this extremely important election and they become even more concerned when their phone calls and emails to the BOE go unanswered,” she said.
Malliotakis also encouraged her supporters to head to the polls, even during the pandemic: “Sadly, this episode confirms what many have said: The best way to ensure that your vote is counted, is to vote in person.”
State Sen. Andrew Gounardes (D-Brooklyn), whose seat was previously held by a Republican for 15 years and whose district overlaps with Rose’s, also encouraged his supporters to vote in person.
“The BOE needs to move quickly to rectify the situation and restore the public’s confidence,” Gounardes said. “If people feel comfortable and can, I’m encouraging in-person early voting to avoid any issues and avoid the crowds.”