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Absentee Voters Still Wait for Confirmation From NYC’s Election Ballot Tracking System

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Some New Yorkers are experiencing a potentially-disenfranchising amount of lag using the Board of Elections first-ever online absentee ballot tracker.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITYq

To deal with an influx in absentee ballots in this year’s pandemic-wracked presidential election, New York City’s Board of Elections set up a new feature: an online tracker to give voters information about where their ballot is and if it is valid.

But in the run-up to Election Day, the tracker is taking days to update, leaving some New Yorkers unclear about the status of their votes — and whether they need to head to the polls in person Tuesday, after all.

Upper West Sider Debra K. requested a ballot so she could avoid endangering her newborn grandchild this year amid the COVID-19 crisis. She has checked the tracker regularly to make sure the BOE got her signed and completed papers.

But as of Monday afternoon, when she entered her information on the tracker website, it still didn’t say whether the election agency had received her ballot.

“I want to know they have it in their hand,” Debra, who asked that her last name be withheld, told THE CITY. “And that’s what I don’t know.”

She mailed the ballot Oct. 26, confident it would arrive in time. Her son had mailed his the previous week and the tracker reported that it arrived in just a couple of days, she said.

But, for her, the days went by and the tracker didn’t budge from the status “Voter Mailed Ballot,” which reflects when the post office received a ballot to mail.

On Monday morning, she called the Board of Elections and a worker leveled with her.

“The young man said, no, at this point, they’re not updating their website,” she recounted. But he assured her the BOE would get it updated by Election Day.

“I said, ‘That’s great. Is it going to be updated by 6 a.m.?’ Because I need to know if I need to get in line at 6 a.m.” — the time New York’s polls open, she said. 

“He said, ‘I don’t know.’”

When in Doubt, Show Up

The BOE did not respond to inquiries from THE CITY on Monday. But the agency told Common Cause New York, a good-government group, that New Yorkers should check the tracker Monday night — and clear up the calendar for Tuesday.

“The advice from them is: Check at the end of the day. And if your ballot doesn’t indicate ‘received,’ you may want to vote in person,” said Susan Lerner, executive director at Common Cause.

Voters who dropped their absentee ballots off at a polling location dropbox, however, don’t need to rely on the tracker, according to a tweet from NYC Votes, a division of the Campaign Finance Board.

“By dropping it off, you can be sure the BOE received it in time,” the agency wrote in a response to one voter on Monday. The BOE confirmed the same hours later.

Volunteers with Common Cause have been fielding questions from voters about the issue via social media. One New Yorker who went online to vent her frustration was Kandice Mosley, who up until this past weekend still had not seen final confirmation on the tracker that her ballot she mailed on Sept. 30 was received and valid.

She and her husband sent in their ballots instead of going to vote in-person because he works irregular hours and wasn’t sure he’d have Election Day off. Plus, the couple from Spring Creek, Brooklyn, has three children and Mosley didn’t want to have to take the kids to the polls.

“It was making me nervous,” she said. “I was like, is this going to be something where my vote doesn’t count? Or, you know, I have to really fight for this? Or am I going to do something wrong by going in person?”

She prepared herself to go vote in person. But on Sunday, she checked the tracker again and was relieved to see the message she’d waited for: “Ballot Received Valid.”

Those who do not get a confirmation message in time should know they have the right to vote in person, Lerner noted, even if they already sent in an absentee ballot — and it will count.

“When you vote in person, your absentee ballot is removed and not counted,” she said.

In many other states, that is not the case: Once you vote absentee, that’s the vote that counts, Lerner said. But in New York “we allow your in-person vote to override your absentee vote,” she said.

That’s a good thing, in her view. But it has a consequence: All of those instances where an absentee voter then casts a ballot in person may slow down the tallying process.

“They have to wait until all the absentees are received. Then they compare the list of people who voted in person to the list of absentees received,” said Lerner.

‘A Huge Logistical Challenge’

The process of voting absentee has been an anxiety-producing process for Chris K., a Ridgewood, Queens, voter who helped two friends in Brooklyn get and mail their absentee ballots. He took it upon himself to track three ballots: his own and theirs.

“I was wondering why I didn’t see anything on the system. And I just kept checking multiple times a day,” said Chris, who asked that his last name be withheld.

He mailed his ballot in late September, and his friends’ went out in early October. It took about 10 days for the tracker to reflect that the ballots arrived at the BOE, but even longer to show that they had been received and marked valid.

“I thought that was pretty unacceptable,” he said. “If there’s an issue with your ballot, you might not know until it’s too late.”

A Brooklynite drops off an absentee ballot at the Barclays Center on the first day of early voting, Oct. 24, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

It’s unclear how many people who sent in absentee ballots may still be waiting for confirmation that the BOE received them. But hundreds of thousands of voters have filled them out to avoid the polls during the pandemic.

According to New York State Board of Elections data, as of Oct. 27, New York City voters had returned 339,002 absentee ballots out of more than 1.1 million that had been requested and sent.

Combine those ballots with the record turnout from early voting and the expected push on Election Day — staffed by 42,000 poll workers — it’s clear what the BOE is up against, Lerner said.

“It is a huge logistical challenge,” she said.

Without her absentee ballot confirmed, Debra said she’s planning to vote at her Upper West Side polling site when the doors open at 6 a.m. on Tuesday.

Even though it’s not her preference, she’ll do it because she feels voting is “so important this year.” But the breakdown of the BOE’s tracker “violates my rules of efficiency,” the retired engineer said.

She’s confident her vote will count, and the votes will be tallied correctly — eventually. But in the meantime, she said, “They’re making it harder on everyone.”

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