The New York City Board of Elections officially certified the results of the November general election on Tuesday with more than 3 million votes counted in the race for president and vice president, expanding the margin of victory by four points for Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris from the unofficial results on Election Day.
While more ballots were cast this year than in the last two presidential contests, when voters and election officials had no public health emergency to contend with, the percent of turnout remained roughly the same at 55% of registered voters.
The final tally included votes cast during early voting and in-person on Election Day, as well as a record-breaking 662,314 absentee ballots, made more readily available because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While absentee ballots accounted for just 4% of the total vote four years ago, this year they made up nearly a quarter of all votes cast, at 22%.
While every election poses its own set of unique challenges, the city BOE struggled throughout the year to stay ahead of changing regulations, an influx of people voting by mail, legal challenges, vendor snafus, and the implementation of policies like early voting (never used before in a presidential election year.)
“Like the other five boros, they’ve done a tremendous job under horrendous circumstances in pulling this election off,” Fred Umane, the city BOE’s Republican Commissioner for Manhattan, said during their virtual commissioners’ meeting Tuesday, praising city BOE staff for their work and echoing the sentiments of the other nine commissioners, despite missing Saturday’s state-mandated certification deadline.
The long-awaited certified results provide a more holistic view of the counting challenge the city BOE faced, made more acute by a surge in absentee ballots. Manhattan voters made up the largest share of those who voted by mail, with 225,877 or a third of all the absentee ballots cast in the city. The boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens both accounted for about a quarter of the absentee ballots, followed by the Bronx at 10% and Staten Island at 5%.
When looking at how the absentee ballots factored into the total number of votes cast by borough, some different trends emerge. In Brooklyn, where more than 100,000 voters were mailed a second absentee ballot because of a printer error earlier this fall, absentee ballots only accounted for about 18% of the 920,880 total ballots from the borough.
By comparison, Brooklyn made up the largest share of more than 1.1 million voters who cast ballots during early voting, with more than 370,000 people voting early, according to data compiled by the state BOE throughout the early voting period. More than 250,000 voters in Queens, 238,000 in Manhattan, 153,000 in the Bronx and 104,000 in Staten Island cast ballots during early voting.
Among the city’s most closely watched races was the hard-fought contest in New York’s 11th congressional district, covering all of Staten Island and a portion of South Brooklyn, where incumbent Democrat Rep. Max Rose unsuccessfully tried to fend off a challenge from Republican Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis. While she declared victory after the polls closed on Election Day, with a 37,000 vote lead based on the unofficial election results, that margin shrank in half to 18,410 votes once absentee ballots were counted.
Still, anticipating that losing outcome, Rose conceded on the third day of counting, which began on November 10th.
This was always going to be a busy year for the city BOE, with the presidential primary originally scheduled for April, followed by state and congressional primaries set for June. As the pandemic rose to its first peak in the spring, a reduced number of city BOE staff continued to report to work to prepare for those election events. Two staffers contracted COVID-19 and died, while dozens of others were sickened.
As the virus surged, Governor Andrew Cuomo waited until late March to announce his order to move the presidential primary, just three weeks before what would have been the start of early voting for the originally scheduled April 28th contest. He also ordered election officials to expand access to absentee voting to try to discourage voters from congregating at poll sites, which led to increased COVID outbreaks in other states.
While intended as a public health measure, the sudden expansion of the absentee ballot system put a serious strain on local BOE officials, and ultimately frustrated some voters who in many cases either never received their absentee ballot or received it too late to submit it.
The mail-in ballots were also a source of scrutiny in federal court where several local candidates successfully sued the state BOE over the postmark requirement set in state law, forcing election workers to count ballots that arrived the day after the election regardless of the postmark.
In advance of the general election this fall, the city BOE made changes intended to improve the absentee ballot application process. Most notably, they launched an absentee ballot tracker that was supposed to enable voters to monitor the status of their absentee ballot from the time they applied for it until it was received by the board. But voters reported long waits to see updates to the systems.
One of the biggest sources of stress for city election officials was the overwhelming turnout during early voting, and the disproportionate allocation of voters to early voting sites. Voters and lawmakers demanded changes after Gothamist/WNYC first reported that nearly 120,000 voters were assigned to one of the early voting site on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The BOE eventually expanded hours and added an additional early voting site to address the crowds there.
The certification process on Tuesday came after three weeks of counting, through a process that some state lawmakers would like to speed up for future elections. There is also a proposal to expand early voting sites and even some hints that the state legislature may review the structure of the agency and how bipartisan control impacts its effectiveness.
State election officials will hold a certification meeting on Thursday to finalize New York’s full results.