Tanzina Vega: Yesterday was also primary day in New York, and so far, the New York Board of Elections is dealing with the surge of absentee ballots, unlike anything the state has dealt with before. As of last week, nearly 30,000 New York City residents who requested a ballot still had not received one, and the absentee ballots that have been received won't be counted until after all the in-person votes are tallied.
Some of the more notable races we're following include Alexandria Ocasio Cortez's first contest since her election in 2018, and so far, she has a significant lead. Former GOP Rep. Claudia Tenney also has a solid lead up in Syracuse. In the race between middle school principal, Jamaal Bowman and longtime New York Democrat Incumbent Eliot Engel, Bowman is holding a pretty solid lead. Joining me now is WNYC city hall and politics reporter Brigid Bergin. Brigid, thanks for joining us.
Brigid Bergin: Hey, Tanzina.
Tanzina: When will we get final results?
Brigid: [laughs] What are you doing in mid-July, Tanzina?
Tanzina: God. Okay.
Brigid: It's going to be a while. As you said, there are in-person tallies from early voting and primary voting yesterday, but there is this just flood of absentee ballots that still could really influence the margin of some of these races that we've got some early results for, some trend information, but these absentee ballots could really change the game. We're not going to know those results until they start counting them next week.
Tanzina: We mentioned at the top, Brigid, that there were about 30,000 New Yorkers, at least in the city, who said they hadn't gotten their ballots as of last week. Has that number changed, or what did those folks end up doing?
Brigid: It's really interesting, Tanzina. Last week, and up through this process, the city board of elections has been releasing data around how many people had applied for an absentee ballot and how many of those ballots had been distributed. That 30,000 number is based on the most recent data that we got from the city board of elections. That was as of last Wednesday, so old, a week old.
Last night, before the pools closed, before any of the in-person results had been published, the board put up a new data set, that was a different set of numbers. They said that they had distributed more than 765,000 absentee ballots, and so far, they've gotten back about 92,000 of those ballots because, of course, they're not going to get back all the ballots, they mail out, not everyone will put them in the mail, some people will decide to vote in person, but it's a really- that change in how they're reporting that information is troublesome I think because it doesn't answer your first question, which is, "Well, how many people didn't end up getting their ballot? How many people applied and were still waiting?
I can tell you that we put a call out to our listeners and our audience yesterday asking for people's voting experience, and if you weren't anywhere near social media, looking at Twitter for New York City, one of the things we saw consistently were stories from people who had, what they said, applied for absentee ballots by the deadline that didn't get them. That's a data point that I will be pursuing pretty aggressively.
Tanzina: With the understanding that we are in the middle of a global pandemic and that has abated somewhat in New York City but we're still in the middle of this, and with that understanding that places may not have been prepared, nobody was prepared for the pandemic, but the New York City and New York State voting apparatus knew that it had problems before the pandemic. We've seen issues at the polls before. Why were they not as prepared, Brigid, as they should have been, pandemic aside, for the surge in absentee ballots, or is it really just those two things colliding right now?
Brigid: Tanzina, one of the things that's complicating here is the board of elections, in a place like New York, is really-- We talk about the board of elections, there's a state board of elections that oversees the state, but then, elections are actually run at the local level. That means there are 61 board of elections across the, excuse me, across the state, and that's a lot of room for how to get things a little bit wrong. Most importantly though, the most important distinction is New York does not have an actual vote by mail system.
New York put in some changes because of the pandemic. Governor Cuomo issued some executive orders expanding access to absentee ballots, but that still meant that people had to go through a whole process of applying for that absentee ballot and then getting it back and then filling out the ballot, filling out the absentee ballot envelope, and then mailing that back. Then, as I said before and as we've talked about, those ballots are technically not supposed to be counted until they are received- until the whole process wraps up next week.
In a state where you have an actual vote by mail system, there generally is more of a tracking system in place so that once that ballot gets mailed out and the person mails it back, then, if a person were to try to go vote in person, they would say, "No, actually, you've already voted. You can't vote in person." Here in New York, since it's not a full vote by mail system, if I've mailed an absentee ballot but then yesterday decided, "You know what, I'm not sure if I did it right," or, "I've changed my mind," whatever it is, I could have still gone to the polls yesterday and voted. That whole sorting process is going to be really complicated.
Again, the other part of it is this is on a scale that the state has never had to deal with before. In the presidential primary in 2016, there were about 115,000 absentee ballots statewide, for this presidential primary and state and local contests, 1.7 million voters applied for absentee ballots statewide.
Tanzina: Brigid, that's something-- I'm thinking the 2020 election is coming up. We've got a minute left in the segment. Will these things be ironed out by the time the presidential election comes up now that the board of elections has a sense for how many people might be voting absentee?
Brigid: It's a really good question. I think a lot of people are going to be looking at it. What's important to note is that the changes that were put in place to allow for expanded absentee ballot access in this election are not in place yet for November. They were executive orders that Governor Cuomo put in place just for this primary, so we'll have to see what system we're going to use for the November general election.
Tanzina: Brigid Bergin is a city hall and politics reporter at WNYC. Brigid, thanks so much for being with us.
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