COVID-19 Pandemic New York City/State Voting Presidential Primaries

The Massive Mail-In Ballots Provided Major Support for a High Turnout in the Pandemic, and Could Bring Dramatic Change in the Vote in New York

The New York City Board of Elections is reporting that over 765,000 absentee ballots were distributed to voters before primary day, June 23, vastly exceeding a tally of in-person votes in the Democratic presidential primary, which came to 471,000, with 96% of election precincts reporting.

The number of absentee ballots returned is not fully known yet, and none of the absentee ballots submitted by voters have been counted — the results of those tallies will not be reported for at least several more days; the absentee count is considered daunting given how expanded the program was this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Board of Elections must receive absentee ballots (postmarked no later than June 23) no later than June 30, and will publish further updates on how many absentee ballots have been returned on Monday, June 29 and Thursday July 2.

The update posted on Friday, June 26 shows the following borough by borough tally:


Manhattan 229,806 62,721
Bronx 99,026 17,589
Brooklyn 229,670 21,396
Queens 181,828 59,438
Staten Island 24,701 11,964
TOTAL 765,031 173,108

Using New York City Board of Elections data, the in-person New York City presidential primary vote was as follows:

IN-PERSON TALLY as of 6/23 (unofficial)

Manhattan 97,448
Bronx 85,344
Brooklyn 159,808
Queens 114,807
Staten Island 13,770
TOTAL 471,177

With such a large disparity between the number of absentee ballots sent out and the number of in-person votes (765,000 vs. 471,000) it seems quite possible that the number of absentee ballots actually returned will approach or even match the number of in-person votes. That means the results of the many primaries for Congress, State Senate, State Assembly, and Queens Borough President are very much incomplete, and do not reflect anywhere near the full vote.

It also means that in many close elections, the leaders on primary night could still lose, and different winners emerge, especially elections where the candidates are only separated by a few hundred votes. Only primary night leaders with very large margins could be considered safe winners.

Congressional Rep. Yvette Clarke from Brooklyn, for instance, got 62% of the in-person vote of 59,000, and was more than 26,000 votes ahead of Adem Bunkeddeko, who had about 18%. The Board of Elections reported 75,000 absentee ballots in the congressional district were sent out, meaning Bunkeddekko would have to win a highly lopsided margin of the absentees to overcome the in-person vote. That seems highly unlikely and Clarke could be considered a safe likely winner.

Congressional Rep. Carolyn Maloney, by contrast, although leading on primary night by 648 votes against her leading opponent, Suraj Patel, out of more than 39,000 in-person votes cast, still faces the risk of defeat. The Board of Elections sent out over 109,000 absentee ballots to voters in the 12th Congressional District (which spans three boroughs), more than 2.5 times the number of in-person votes.

How many of those absentee ballots will actually get returned? We don’t know. Maybe some of the ballots got lost in the mail, maybe some of the returns got lost in the mail, some of the voters ended up voting in person, and some voters didn’t do anything. But it seems reasonable to assume the number of absentee votes in NY-12 will exceed, perhaps by a large number, the in-person vote and we have no idea who the winner might be.

Congressional Rep. Eliot Engel seems too far behind to overcome the lead of his opponent, Jamaal Bowman, who has declared victory in NY-16. Engel is losing by 27 percentage points, about 27,000 to 15,000, out of 44,000 votes cast. The Boards of Election, including both the Bronx and Westchester, sent out 61,000 absentee ballots, but some will not be returned. The Board of Elections absentee return rate in the Bronx part of the 16th Congressional district was only 19% by Friday evening (6/26) and the Westchester elections board is not publishing absentee ballot returns. Nonetheless, Engel would have to achieve an overwhelming reversal of the in-person vote to win the election. Bowman seems the certain winner.

Several State Assembly primaries featuring incumbents versus challengers look too close to call. Assemblymember Aravella Simotas, from the 36th District in Astoria, Queens, is behind her challenger, Zohran Mamdani, by almost 600 votes out of nearly 8,000 cast. But over 16,000 absentee ballots were sent out in the 36th, so she could make up her current losing margin.

Michael DenDekker, in the 34th district, also in western Queens, is behind his opponent, Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, 1,417-2,514, or 23%-40%, out of 6,200 in-person votes cast, with two other candidates getting nearly 1,800 combined votes. There were about 13,000 absentee ballots sent out. Can Assemblymember DenDekker make up a margin of 1,100 from the absentees? It is certainly still possible if daunting.

In Brooklyn two incumbent Assemblymembers are ahead but the elections are quite close. Assemblymember Walter Mosley, from Fort Greene-Clinton Hill, is ahead by 588 votes, 7,482-6,894, out of 14,414 in-person votes cast, over challenger Phara Souffrant Forrest. But almost 26,000 absentee ballots were sent out in this high-voting Brooklyn district, clearly opening the possibility that the challenger can catch up.

Assemblymember Felix Ortiz from Sunset Park leads his nearest challenger, Marcela Mitaynes, by 464 votes, 2,391-1,927, out of nearly 6,200 in-person votes cast. Two other challengers got 1,850 votes between them, and there were 8,841 absentee ballots sent out. The Friday evening report of absentee ballots returned in the district was only 820, less than 10%. Why this district and the other Brooklyn districts are showing return rates of less than 10% while the other boroughs return rates posted June 26 were significantly higher is not clear. But if the Brooklyn absentee ballot returns ultimately approach those of the other boroughs Ortiz’s opponent might still catch up.

Assemblymember Joe Lentol, a 47-year incumbent from Greenpoint, leads his opponent, Emily Gallagher, by more than 1,700 votes, 6,608-4,845, out of 11,500 in-person votes cast. Nearly 17,000 absentee ballots were sent out in the vote-rich 50th Assembly District. Gallagher seems unlikely to overcome that large a margin, but with such a significant number of absentees over the in-person vote, it is certainly not impossible.

Expansion of Mail Balloting May Help Produce an Immense City Democratic Primary Turnout Despite Pandemic
The two largest Democratic primary turnouts in recent history were the highly competitive and well-publicized 2016 Sanders-Clinton presidential primary, with 996,000 votes, and the 2018 gubernatorial primary between Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon, with 855,000 votes.

But this year traditional in-person campaigning largely vanished due to the pandemic. Candidates and their supporters were not knocking on doors or pumping out literature at subways, street fairs, supermarkets, and farmers’ markets to anywhere near the same degree. Instead, every Democratic voter got an absentee ballot application. The voter had to send in the application, get the ballot back, and then send in the ballot. The campaigns used direct mail, phone banking, texting,and social media.

The in-person tally is likely to reach about 500,000 votes despite the pandemic. 765,000 absentee ballots were mailed out by the New York City Board of Elections. If 500,000 of these ballots are returned, New York City Democratic voters will match the turnout in the last presidential primary despite this year’s Democratic presidential primary being effectively over because Vice President Biden has already clinched the nomination. If 50% of the absentee ballots are returned (382,500), the City will exceed the turnout of the 2018 gubernatorial primary.

Driving turnout this year are the many Democratic primaries. Eleven of the 13 congressional districts in the city have primaries, there are 26 Assembly district primaries, ten State Senate primaries, the Queens Borough President primary, and dozens of party office primaries. The local competitions helped compensate for the possible lack of interest in the presidential primary.

There’s a Results Lag But Big Changes Afoot with Constitutional Amendment on Absentee Ballot Voting
If a trend toward large numbers of mail ballots continues, we won’t know the results of elections on election nights if the races are close, but increasing participation seems like a good bet if we make no-excuse absentee voting permanent. A constitutional amendment is required in New York to institutionalize such a change.

The New York Constitution requires a reason for a voter to vote absentee, like illness, disability, or absence from the state on election day. Through executive order Governor Cuomo added COVID-19 (risk of serious illness or death) as a valid reason to vote by absentee this year, but we all hope COVID-19 will subside soon. The New York Legislature is in the process of putting the constitutional change on the ballot for November 2021. The Legislature voted in 2019 to do this and has to vote again in 2021 to get the question before the electorate that fall.

Absentee Balloting Differences Under Current System
There were major differences by borough in the percentage of persons who voted in person during early voting or on primary day versus the number of absentee ballots sent out by the Board of Elections in each borough. Every voter was supposed to at first receive an absentee ballot application, and had to send the application in before the Board sent out the ballot. Here’s a look at the percentage of in-person votes by borough compared to the number of absentee ballots distributed by the Board by borough:


Manhattan  97,448  229,806  42.4
 Bronx  85,344  99,026  86.2
 Brooklyn  159,808  229,670  69.6
 Queens  114,807  181,828  63.1
 Staten Island  13,770  24,701  55.7
 TOTAL  471,177  765,031  61.6

In more affluent Manhattan, the in-person vote was only 42% of the number of absentee ballots distributed to voters there. Two-and-a-half times as many voters sought an absentee ballot in Manhattan as went to the polls in person (230,000 versus 97,000). By contrast, in the Bronx, the city’s poorest borough, the number of persons who voted in person nearly equaled the number of persons who were sent absentee ballots, meaning the number of eligible persons who applied for them (85,000 versus 99,000, or 86%). The other boroughs had a mid-range compared to the richest and the poorest.

Why was this? This is an important question to ponder and study. Issues such as mail delivery, ballot application messaging, stresses of the public health and economic crises, and more need to be considered. Obviously mailing only the ballots themselves could have an impact on participation more broadly.

There were plenty of anecdotal reports that voters got their absentee ballots too late and ended up voting in person. I may be overestimating how many absentee ballots were returned. Like any election, there will be a round of significant problems uncovered. The Board of Elections will need greater accountability as we move toward more absentee ballots, like reporting requirements on a regular basis as to how many requests are coming in and when the ballots are being mailed. But there is likely to be a dramatic transformation beginning with the initial broad use of mail-in ballots in New York.

Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.


Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years and retired at the end of 2016. He chaired four committees, including the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions for six years, the Committee on Cities for five years, and the Committee on Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities for six years. There are 96 Brennan laws on the books of the State of New York and Jim won three national awards for his legislative work during his career.

2 comments on “The Massive Mail-In Ballots Provided Major Support for a High Turnout in the Pandemic, and Could Bring Dramatic Change in the Vote in New York

  1. Why does that BOE wait so long to count the absentee ballots?

    • jimbrennancommentaries

      Counting absentee ballots involves huge manual labor,legal vetting, and coordination. Every ballot has to be opened and the signature verified with the voter’s original signature, and every campaign has a right to have a witness present, and they have to accomplish this for hundreds of thousands of ballots with social distancing required and the ordinary workers, many of them elderly, reluctant to show up now.

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