ALBANY, N.Y. – Policies favoring secrecy over transparency have meant that New Yorkers will be among the last Americans to learn the final vote tallies in the 2020 election, with results in a few races still unknown one month after Election Day.
Several of the locally run elections boards responsible for processing a record 2 million absentee ballots cast in the state decided not to release any rolling updates on how their count of those mail-in votes was progressing until the very last vote was tallied.
While elections officials in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada updated the public daily on how their count of the mail-in vote was going, their counterparts in some parts of New York maintained radio silence, and refused all media requests for information as to how the vote was unfolding.
“The country was looking down their noses at Pennsylvania, Georgia for taking so long,” said Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris. “New York makes them look good. We are the last in the nation in terms of finishing our vote counts and it’s an embarrassment that would have been more widely known were we at play in the presidential election.”
New York City's Board of Elections kept information about its count of more than 662,000 absentee ballots secret until Tuesday. As of Thursday, Suffolk County, on the eastern end of Long Island, still hadn't given any public updates on its tally of more than 160,000 absentee ballots.
Some county election boards chose to give absentee vote tallies to the candidates, but not the public. That left media organizations that have historically played an important role in declaring election winners and losers, including The Associated Press, partly in the dark.
“The transparency has been a problem a long time in New York state,” said Jennifer Wilson, the deputy director of League of Women Voters of New York State, a nonpartisan voting rights advocacy group
Part of the delay in getting results has to do with a state law that generally makes counties wait about a week before they start counting absentee ballots. But Gianaris, a Democrat, said that doesn’t account for the lack of transparency once that count began.
“Why counties have not provided absentee totals on a very public and ongoing way, there is no reason,” Gianaris said. “They should.”
“Even those of us that are involved in campaigns were forced to rely on informal information or people on site witnessing it to get our own numbers,” Gianaris said. “The process lacks for transparency.”
The slowness of some New York counties in releasing absentee vote tallies has been less of an issue in past years because, historically, the state hasn't had a very big mail-in vote.
But a record number of mail-in ballots were cast this year after state officials decided to allow anyone to vote by absentee as a way of thinning crowds at polling stations during the coronavirus pandemic.
In-person votes cast on Election Day are generally reported quickly in the state, with many counties publicly reporting results as they come in from each precinct following the close of polling stations. That happened this year as well.
Results in many places, though, then stagnated for weeks as mail-in votes were counted. As those votes were tallied in secret, some results took huge swings.
Former U.S. Rep. Claudia Tenney, a Republican trying to unseat U.S. Rep. Anthony Brindisi, a Democrat, in central New York, saw an Election Day lead of nearly 28,000 votes evaporate as the weeks went by — a similar phenomenon that impacted many races up and down the ticket across the country. But news of that dwindling lead came mostly from the candidates themselves, not the county election boards tallying the vote.
In Oswego County, one of the eight counties involved in tabulating that race, Elections Commissioner Laura Brazak, a Democrat, defended her board’s practice of giving updates on absentee vote totals only to the candidates’ representatives and not to the media or public.
“The candidates and the candidates’ campaigns attorneys have all the most updated information if you want to contact them,” Brazak said Wednesday. “My county attorney, my legal representation, says don’t talk to the press."
The county released nothing publicly until this week, when it gave its totals to a judge overseeing disputes over some ballots.
Spokespeople for New York City’s Board of Elections did not respond to numerous attempts to reach them for an explanation as to why they chose to adopt a policy of secrecy.
Gianaris, who has been in the Senate and Assembly for a combined nearly 20 years, recently proposed legislation to require counties to start counting absentee ballots earlier, among other voting reforms.
Several Democratic legislative leaders have expressed support for Gianaris' bill, while Republican Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay said he supports election reforms to increase transparency and speed.
“I can’t fathom a good substantive reason we shouldn’t be doing that,” Barclay said.
Tom Speaker, policy analyst for good government group Reinvent Albany, said it’s “wrong” for counties to have the public depend on candidates for election results instead of the government.
“Basically we don’t pay our tax dollars so that we can get our information from candidates from political office,” Speaker said. “We pay it so we can get transparency from our boards of election.”
The state leaves it up to counties to decide when to release updates on their tallies of the absentee vote, said Jerry Goldfeder, an election law attorney who’s represented New York candidates for 40 years.
“Our decentralized election system apparently allows counties to set their own rules regarding transparency,” he said.
Some county officials said they believed they weren’t allowed to update the public on absentee vote totals in races where candidates had gone to court over ballot issues, but Goldfeder said he’s never recalled a state judge ruling that a county cannot release updates on absentee ballot tallies before results are made official.
“This race is quickly becoming a poster child for the need for a fundamental overhaul of the way we conduct elections in New York State,” he said.