“It’s a nightmare in an age of political paranoia,” says Ritchie Torres, a city councilman who is currently in the lead for an open congressional seat in the Bronx—the bluest district in the country—but who is still waiting on the final result.
Every election in the past few months has provided more evidence of a system that isn’t able to keep up with the coronavirus. Wisconsinites waited to vote for hours in the rain wearing makeshift masks. A police officer in Washington, D.C., reportedly tried to disperse a crowd waiting to vote, because the people in line were breaking a curfew established in response to the George Floyd protests. More people than ever are voting by mail, and election officials are invalidating more votes than ever because of technical errors. In Georgia, 943,000 primary voters turned in absentee ballots, a 2,500 percent increase from the 2016 primary.
New York’s June elections were primaries for local races—assembly and state Senate and Congress—with no partisan change in power at stake and a much smaller pool of voters than a general election. New York is a solidly Democratic state, with a Democratic governor, and all the officials who matter said they were committed to expanding voting by mail and other options. And it was a disaster.
Imagine what happens when the results matter more. Imagine it’s December 5, a month after the national elections in the fall. Is President Donald Trump ahead, or Joe Biden? Who’s ahead in close House races? Senate races? Local races for mayor or state legislature? Are votes still coming in? Are they being contested? Who’s making the decisions? Which courts are getting involved? Recounts, if they’re needed, would be in … January? February? When is the presidential election going to be called? When will every seat be filled for the next session of Congress?
Read: Trump could still break democracy’s biggest norm
Trump isn’t likely to patiently and calmly wait as more votes are counted—especially if he’s behind. In an interview on Fox News that aired on Sunday, he already refused to commit to accepting the results.
“In the world where the election tightens, if there are swing states for the Senate, or certainly the Electoral College, that have an absentee process that’s as poor as what happened here in New York City, it could be catastrophically bad for the future of American democracy,” says Brad Lander, a city councilman from Brooklyn who’s been trying to call attention to the disproportionately high rate of absentee ballots officials have invalidated in his borough.
Elections in New York have always taken place against a backdrop of corruption and incompetence, patronage and piddling, whereby democracy runs up against bureaucracy and usually gets a concussion. The New York City Board of Elections has a central office, but also five borough offices that run semi-independently, overseen by 10 commissioners appointed by the Republican and Democratic Party chairs of each borough. Forget about administering elections—officials can’t even place a letter of reprimand in an employee’s file without at least six votes from the board.