By Sam Bojarski

An apparent postmarking problem on thousands of mail-in absentee ballots could impact the vote count in several Brooklyn Democratic primary races, including the race for state Assembly District 57. 

Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order granting every household access to an absentee ballot. To have their vote counted, voters needed to postmark mail-in ballots by June 23. But of the more than 100,000 absentee ballots returned by Brooklyn voters, some have not been postmarked by the United States Postal Service (USPS), Kings County Democratic Party Chair Rodneyse Bichotte told NY1 in an interview. Bichotte also represents District 42 in the state assembly.

“We still have a number of absentee ballots, roughly about four percent, that might be thrown away, and no fault of the voters. So we’re very concerned about that. In Brooklyn primarily, we have a number of races that are very slim,” she said in the interview with NY1 on July 9. 

Phara Souffrant Forrest (pictured) is in a tight race for state assembly.

Bichotte specifically mentioned Assembly District 57 among one of the close contests that could be impacted. The district comprises the neighborhoods of Fort Green, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights and parts of Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant.  

Haitian-American candidate Phara Souffrant Forrest is running against incumbent Walter Mosley for the district’s assembly seat. 

The mail-in ballot count could easily decide the race. Citing recent Board of Elections data, campaign spokesperson Nathan Pensler said Forrest trails Mosley by 588 votes. This number represents just 4 percent of the votes cast, he added, in an email. 

“People really want to make sure that their vote counted in spite of a pandemic, and it’s just disappointing to see that so many ballots will be invalid,” said Forrest, who noted how simple the postmarking error was. 

The campaign’s efforts to encourage mail-in voting in the district “translated into almost 15,000 returned absentee ballots, which is greater than the number of in-person votes. This election is far from over,” read a July 10 Facebook post on Forrest’s campaign page. 

The office of Walter Mosley has not responded to multiple requests for comment. 

Absentee ballot counting began in Brooklyn early last week. However, it is unclear exactly when the canvas will begin for District 57. The city Board of Elections regularly updates the canvassing schedule on its website but had not published the canvas date for District 57, as of the afternoon of July 13. The Board of Elections did not have an exact date for when final results will be certified. 

Bichotte said that she has called the governor to request a new executive order governing absentee ballots. She indicated on NY1 that a lack of federal funding for USPS as an underlying factor in the failure to postmark and scan some envelopes. 

Her office did not return a request for further comment. 

A letter circulated by the progressive New Kings Democrats and signed by numerous advocacy groups, elected representatives and candidates from Brooklyn and Queens, has also called on Cuomo to issue an order, declaring that all ballots received by the Board of Elections on or before June 30 be counted ‒ postmark or not. 

Hundreds of thousands of voters throughout NYC sent in primary ballots via mail.

“With the November presidential election rapidly approaching, voters across the country are wondering whether vote-by-mail and mass absentee voting can be conducted fairly. What Governor Cuomo does next has profound implications for democracy in our city, state and nation,” the letter read. 

Forrest said she supports an executive order mandating the counting of ballots, regardless of postmark, citing her desire to make sure every voter’s voice is represented. 

“This I think has big impacts on what those November elections will look like, if people simply just don’t trust the system,” she also said.

New York State Board of Elections Director of Public Information John Conklin said he anticipated prior to June 23 that every piece of mail would have a readable postmark. In the absence of an executive order, non-postmarked ballots will not get counted. 

“The statute says if it doesn’t have a postmark on it, it doesn’t get counted, and I think that’s where it’s going to be,” said Conklin. 

All in all, Democratic voters in New York City have returned more than 400,000 mail-in absentee ballots to the city Board of Elections. To ensure this record number of ballots receives an accurate count, numerous candidates throughout the city, including Forrest, have filed preemptive lawsuits, allowing them to challenge individual ballots, when canvassing commences.

With these lawsuits, candidates aim to ensure a fair count and that election rules are followed. 

“That’s really the goal of the lawsuit, is to make sure we give every voter a fighting chance,” Forrest said. 

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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