There’s a consistently repeated theory — I won’t go so far as to call it a conspiracy theory because it gets play in places like The New York Times — that President Donald Trump is undermining the United States Postal Service because slow delivery undermines mail-in balloting and an election conducted mostly via mailed-in ballots.
The theory goes thus: Trump and his conservative allies have long believed the USPS is poorly run and needs to either reform itself or be fully privatized. Democrats say that it’s in need of cash to deal with a crush of ballots this November if we have an election where most ballots are filed by mail because of the coronavirus.
They’re requesting more money for the USPS in the next coronavirus stimulus package — except it’s more of a wide-reaching bailout for an institution whose problems are of its own making than money specifically designed to ensure the election runs smoothly.
Add to this the fact that President Trump’s appointee to head the USPS has begun to cut costs at the Postal Service — including stopping overtime pay — in the name of efficiency and, the theory goes, this is all about creating a disaster in November.
The problem with this is that mail-in voting is already kind of a disaster.
Exhibit A, your honor: As of Monday, two widely watched congressional primaries in New York City haven’t been called yet because there’s a backlog created by 400,000 mail-in ballots, many of which haven’t been counted.
Exhibit B: That primary happened on June 23.
As The New York Times reported Monday, election officials in Gotham didn’t expect 10 times as many absentee ballots as normal for the primary, which had several closely watched races.
In the Bronx, Ritchie Torres — a 32-year-old New York City Council member considered an up-and-comer in the Democratic Party — holds a substantial lead over his challengers. According to Ballotpedia, Torres has 30.4 percent of the vote, compared to 19.3 percent for his next-closest challenger. Nevertheless, given the fact not enough of the ballots have been counted, he can’t be declared the winner.
A much closer — and much more consequential — primary involves Suraj Patel, a progressive challenger to Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who’s been in Congress since time immemorial. (Or 27 years, which feels like it.)
Patel told Ballotpedia he’s challenging Maloney, a powerful voice in the Democratic establishment, “on the basis that you cannot accept millions of dollars ion corporate PAC money and be impartial in your legislative duty on Capitol Hill. If we want change, we can’t keep reelecting representatives who embody the worst parts of a system we’ve all come to detest.”
He has a shot — he’s down by 3,700 votes, according to The Times.
The Postal Service hasn’t escaped blame in this one — more about that in a second — but several of the key problems include staffing issues caused by the coronavirus, a high number of invalidated ballots that have to do with state law and the fact that Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo dropped the ball.
The first issue is obvious. Frederic M. Umane, secretary of New York City’s Board of Elections, said that his “staff was decimated by Covid.”
Of the roughly 350 permanent workers the Board of Elections employs as well as the temps they have around election time, Umane didn’t give exact numbers as to how many were out sick. That said, he said it was significant enough to complicate numbers. He said hundreds more workers may be needed before the November election.
And then there were the particulars of New York state law. Those who remember the “exact match” controversy during the 2018 election in Georgia — which was part of Stacey Abrams’ contention that she really won the election and was denied victory by disenfranchised voters — will find what went on in the Peach State extremely quaint compared to this.
Election officials “cited state laws requiring the disqualification of ballots for various small errors — including missing signatures on ballot envelopes or envelopes sealed with tape — for contributing to the high number of invalidated ballots,” according to The Times.
And then there’s the Postal Service, whose incompetence has nothing to do with a lack of funding.
“Election lawyers said one area of concern in New York City was that mail-in ballots have prepaid return envelopes,” The Times reported. “The Postal Service apparently had difficulty processing some of them correctly and, as a result, an unknown number of votes — perhaps thousands — may have been wrongfully disqualified because of a lack of a postmark.”
“Thousands more ballots in the city were discarded by election officials for minor errors, or not even sent to voters until the day before the primary, making it all but impossible for the ballots to be returned in time.”
In the Patel-Maloney case, for instance, 12,000 ballots have been invalidated, including 1,200 missing the postmark.
“This election is a canary in the coal mine,” Patel, who’s filed a lawsuit, told The Times.
He’s not inaccurate, but not quite in the way he might think.
This is where we get to Cuomo, who compared mail-in voting to “systems that we were working on but were not ready,” such as remote learning to replace classroom learning. Yes, because that’s how to inspire confidence in New Yorkers, comparing it with online learning.
“We did have — not we — boards of elections had operational issues, some better, some worse, and they have to learn from them,” Cuomo said. “And we want to get the lessons and make the system better and make it better for November.”
However, another person with the New York City Board of Elections had a more dire take on it: “Imagine saying, ‘I’m having a dinner party for 10 people,’ and then they say, ‘No, it’s 100 people,’” they said. “It’s a very deep learning curve.”
Yes, and if your experience is still mostly with giving dinner parties for 10 people and you’re going to give it for 100 for the second time, are we to imagine things are going to be better, no matter how much you scale up?
Keep in mind, this is at a time when the Postal Service is mostly at a lull. If you want to see what it’s like at its most lull-tastic, CBS News conducted an experiment where the network mailed 100 ballots to a fictitious board of elections it set up to see how many arrived. This was conducted in Philadelphia in the middle of summer, without a primary going on.
Twenty-one percent of the ballots didn’t arrive within three days. Another 3 percent didn’t arrive at all. If you think that sounds acceptable, consider the margin between Patel and Maloney.
For all the talk about voter fraud and foreign voters from opponents of near-universal mail-in voting, this is the real problem. There’s no way to scale up a system to a level that’s been heretofore untried in a short number of months and then claim there won’t be any problems — and if you say you are, you’re just suppressing voter turnout, you horrible person.
To quote a former defense secretary given to poesy from time to time: There are known knowns, there are known unknowns and there are unknown unknowns.
The known knowns: We know that mail-in voting can work if it’s tried on a small scale, and we also know we’ve never tried it on a national scale before. The known unknowns: We don’t know if it can be scaled up and we don’t know if there’s any way our boards of election could possibly be up to it, particularly after what we’ve seen in New York City.
The unknown unknowns are what should keep us up at night.
On June 23, in two primaries for House races that (in all due respect to Torres, Patel and Maloney) are small-ish stakes, votes were mailed in. It’s August 3. We don’t have a winner in either one and, at least in the case of Patel and Maloney, that winner may be bitterly contested in court.
On Nov. 3 — or the weeks preceding it — Democrats want this process to play itself out across the nation, all with the Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns lurking out there and despite the fact there’s no evidence in-person voting spreads COVID-19.
And their biggest concern is that Donald Trump might be trying to kneecap the USPS to make the process more difficult. Really.
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