The upstate firm responsible for sending mislabeled absentee ballot envelopes to thousands of Brooklyn voters notched a $4.6 million, no-bid contract after promising it would get the job done using a system dubbed “Electrack,” records show.
“Electrack” apparently went off the rails with a computer glitch that shifted data — spurring a massive wave of complaints from voters who got return envelopes with the wrong names and addresses. Now the city Board of Elections is scrambling to resend ballots to 100,000 Brooklyn voters in time for the Nov. 3 presidential election.
The company responsible, Phoenix Graphics of Rochester, N.Y., also has a history of writing campaign checks to political committees and candidates that are almost exclusively Republican, with three of every four dollars contributed going to the GOP, records reviewed by THE CITY show.
The absentee ballot debacle emerged as President Donald Trump has repeatedly raised questions about the integrity of mail-in voting, which universally works well with little evidence of fraud. Many voters across the country are expected to mail in ballots this year due to the pandemic.
Direct Mail printing with high-tech equipment located in-house, Intelligent inserting with up to four inserts, Five-way personalization, acquire targeted lists for your audience, your #campaign delivered quickly & efficiently, high-volume printing, #accuracy, & #trackability. pic.twitter.com/MDtLcXmrFD— Phoenix Graphics (@PG_Rochester) June 26, 2020
Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte (D-Brooklyn), who sponsored legislation that made absentee voting easier in New York, worried the Phoenix Graphic fiasco will give unwarranted credibility to those who claim mail-in voting is vulnerable to tampering.
“It will validate the description of some people and we certainly don’t want that perception to be held,” she said. “This was very discouraging and alarming and obviously we are outraged simply because we worked so hard to get legislation to allow absentee ballots to be efficient and easy for people.”
Starting over the weekend and continuing into Monday, the city Board of Elections and local media outlets, including THE CITY, were flooded with emails and calls from perplexed voters from Sheepshead Bay to Crown Heights to DUMBO who’d received ballots with return envelopes emblazoned with the names and addresses of neighbors.
Confidence is ‘Essential’
On Tuesday, BOE Director Mike Ryan placed the blame squarely on Phoenix, alleging that, due to some unspecified error, the first printing of 100,000 absentee ballots the firm sent out was fatally flawed.
Ryan assured frustrated voters they’d be getting second, correct ballots in the coming days — and that Phoenix would be picking up the tab.
“It is essential that confidence be established in this process and we make certain at all of the voters that potentially have a problem have a full and fair ability to remedy that problem,” Ryan stated during a virtual city Board of Elections commission meeting.
Ryan stated that the problem only affected Brooklyn voters, although Phoenix was also hired to distribute absentee ballots in Queens.
The Board of Elections awarded Phoenix the $4.6 million contract in May. City comptroller records show the board solicited only Phoenix for the job, deciding against a competitive bidding process that could have generated multiple proposals.
In a letter accepting the job, Phoenix CEO Sal DeBiase boasted of the company’s special “Electrack” system, writing that it includes “all of the electronic/camera security checks to ensure that every voter receives the correct ballot in a timely fashion.”
Today is #NationalVoterRegistrationDay and as New York State's largest ballot producer, we urge you to do your part and vote.— Phoenix Graphics (@PG_Rochester) September 22, 2020
You can find more info on registration here: https://t.co/SkVJ82ta8D #printingindustry #ballotproducer #votebymail #doyourpart #vote pic.twitter.com/YgyEBWHKVm
BOE officials did not respond to THE CITY’s questions about what went wrong.
But Bichotte said she was told that a number assigned to the data the Board of Elections sent to Phoenix was not formatted correctly, shifting all the information so that the return envelopes were assigned to a voter’s neighbor.
“There was a software upgrade problem,” Bichotte said. “Data wasn’t backed up. And there was a number that was off.”
Phoenix did not respond to calls, messages and written questions from THE CITY on Monday and Tuesday.
A voice recording stated, “Phoenix Group is working hard with your Board of Elections to ensure that everyone will have what they need to vote. A press release will follow soon.”
During the commission meeting, Ryan did not address how such an error could have occurred or why Phoenix was picked. The board’s spokesperson, Valerie Vasquez, did not respond to a list of questions from THE CITY.
Checks and Imbalances
The job marked Phoenix’s first BOE contract, although the firm had printed ballots for the city before under a contract awarded in 2010 by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS). That contract started at $227,000 but was modified year after year and grew to $3.4 million, records show.
Other records indicate an uneven divide in how the company doled out political contributions. State campaign finance records show between 2010 and 2020 Phoenix wrote $109,540 in campaign checks, with $75,198 going to Republican committees and candidates. Two Monroe County Republican committees got $60,000 of that.
By comparison, Phoenix gave $28,400 to the Monroe County Democratic Committee and a handful of upstate Democratic candidates. The rest went to issue committees whose political affiliation could not be determined.
Bichotte said firms assigned work that must be strictly non-partisan should be examined closely before they’re hired.
“Going forward, we should have a process that fully vets everything about that vendor,” she said. “It should be a bipartisan neutral body. They should not be in a position where they support one party over another.”
The Board of Elections also hired a second vendor, Fort Orange Press in Albany, which won a $6 million contract to print and distribute absentee ballots in Manhattan, Staten Island and The Bronx, records show.
Voters in those boroughs have not reported any similar issues with their ballots.