vision 2020

New Yorkers Brave Depressingly Long Lines on First Weekend of Early Voting

This is what democracy looks like? Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Saturday marked the first time New Yorkers could vote early and in-person for a presidential election, and voters around the city lined up to do their civic duty, with many waiting several hours for the privilege. The scenes were simultaneously inspiring and infuriating — a reminder of New Yorkers’ investment in the election, but also the widely agreed-upon incompetence of the city and state’s election administration.

As of Sunday evening, 193,915 New Yorkers across the five boroughs had voted in person, according to the city’s Board of Elections. More long lines immediately cropped up on Monday morning on a grey and drizzly day in the city.

On Sunday, the crowded scenes prompted a rebuke from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“There is no place in the United States of America where two, three, four-hour waits to vote is acceptable,’’ she said.

Mayor de Blasio also weighed in on Monday morning, calling on the Board of Elections to add staff to deal with the crush of people turning out.

The crowds are likely to dissipate somewhat during the week. But New York offers only nine days of early voting, which compares poorly to many other states. (California starts voting 29 days before the election and Texas 22, for example.) The city’s Board of Elections also put into place confusing rules about where people could cast their ballots early; only a fraction of Election-Day voting sites, 88 out of 1,201, are early-voting locations.

That it took until 2019 for early voting to arrive in New York — even as it became commonplace around the country years earlier — is a testament both to election-administration dysfunction across the state and political deadlock. State Republicans had for years blocked early voting, but were powerless to do so once Democrats took full control of New York government in 2018.

But that innovation has hardly solved the many deep-seated problems at the city’s Board of Elections, which, despite decades of widely agreed-upon ineptness, seems utterly resistant to reform. The New York Times has an illuminating piece diving into the sclerotic institution, which it describes as a “a century-old system of local election administration that is one of the last vestiges of pure patronage in government.” Jobs (which are duplicated between Democratic and Republican staffers, an arrangement unique to the state) often go to relatives of politicians or power brokers. Gross negligence is commonplace. And despite a string of high-profile mistakes over the years (catastrophic lines, mistaken voter purges, possibly pivotal ballots found in ceiling tiles) and decades of calls for reform, nothing much has changed.

The ineptitude has extended to issues with mail-in voting, a new wrinkle during the pandemic. During the primary, some ballots weren’t sent to voters until the day before the election, and many thousands may have been wrongly disqualified over issues with postmarks. And during the general election, about 100,000 ballots were simply sent to the wrong people, an issue the Board blamed on a vendor error.

Given all that, it is understandable that New Yorkers would rather personally see their ballots entered into an electronic scanner — sadly, the kerchunk machines of yore are long gone — than send them into the ether. The fact that they may need to stand for hours in the process is far from ideal.

New Yorkers Brave Depressingly Long Lines to Vote