Wait weeks to tally November’s votes? One ex-official says that ‘could be generous’

Tuesday’s Kentucky and New York results likely to take until next week

Democrat Jamaal Bowman, who declared victory Wednesday in his primary against Rep. Eliot L. Engel, greets supporters in Yonkers, New York, on Tuesday. Engel's campaign said votes need to be counted. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
Democrat Jamaal Bowman, who declared victory Wednesday in his primary against Rep. Eliot L. Engel, greets supporters in Yonkers, New York, on Tuesday. Engel's campaign said votes need to be counted. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
Posted June 25, 2020 at 5:30am

This week’s key primary contests in Kentucky and New York have provided yet more evidence that Election Day will last beyond the first Tuesday in November.

In both states, the abundance of absentee ballots that did not need to be received by Tuesday is leading to lengthy delays in reporting of election results, putting campaigns in a kind of suspended animation.

New York and Kentucky both accepted ballots as long as they were postmarked by election day, and the numbers of absentee voters surged because of precautions taken in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ballots can be received as late as Saturday in Kentucky and June 30 in New York.

Joe Burns, a former deputy director at the New York State Board of Elections, said the counting of absentee ballots in November could take even longer.

“I think weeks could potentially be generous if you’re talking about the number of absentee ballots in a given race going from, say, 4 or 5 percent to 40 or 50 percent,” Burns told reporters Wednesday. “If you go and increase the number of absentee ballots by a factor of 10, you would think it’s going to take that much longer.”

Burns noted that in states like New York, there is no need to tabulate results for many uncontested primary races.

New York Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo used emergency powers related to the pandemic to effectively implement no-excuse absentee voting for the primary, and there’s no reason to think that will change in November.

‘Massive number of absentee ballots’

“Come November, you’re going to have every Democrat, every Republican, every independent entitled to vote, and if the governor continues … the order that every voter is entitled to an absentee ballot should they be afraid of contracting the coronavirus, you’re looking at a massive number of absentee ballots to count,” Burns said on a press call, which was organized by Lawyers Democracy Fund.

Priorities USA, a Democratic outside group, has legal challenges to ballot return deadlines in Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania, arguing against potential disenfranchisement.

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“The unique challenges we’ve witnessed in recent primaries is an illustration of why we thought it was so important to fight not only to ease or eliminate restrictions on vote-by-mail but to advocate for safe in-person voting. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve understood that the health crisis would further overwhelm elections officials, and what we’re seeing is a reflection of that,” Aneesa McMillan, the director of strategic communications and voting rights at the group, said in an email.

McMillan added that there are ongoing concerns about limited voting hours and reduced numbers of polling places for in-person voting as a result of the pandemic-related restrictions.

Kentucky allowed no-excuse absentee voting for the first time this week, a result of bipartisan negotiations between Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams.

There, it will likely be impossible to call the closely watched Democratic primary to take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell until results are reported from Louisville and Lexington, and full results are not expected until June 30.

Supporters of state Rep. Charles Booker of Louisville were optimistic that his insurgent campaign for the Democratic Senate nomination would prove successful in upsetting Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee-backed candidate Amy McGrath.

Engel opponent Bowman declares victory

The Associated Press was also yet to declare the winner in the Democratic primary between Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel and former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman in New York’s 16th District.

Bowman declared victory Wednesday. Tallies by the AP last updated shortly before 3 a.m. had him leading 61 percent to 36 percent, a lead of about 9,100 votes out of nearly 36,000 cast.

It was unknown, however, how many absentee ballots remained to be counted. Election officials said those tallies would not be announced until next week, and Engel’s campaign spokesman said it was premature to make a declaration about the final result.

House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney also appeared potentially in trouble in her primary in New York, with early returns showing a close contest. In close races, absentee ballots are often more heavily scrutinized than machine returns anyway, a reality that could further prolong the wait for official results.

Some House primaries that are not closely watched cannot be called either, in many cases. For instance, no results had been reported as of Wednesday morning in the Republican primary in Kentucky’s 3rd District.

While the Louisville-based district held by House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth is safely Democratic, there was a three-way GOP primary to challenge him in November.

And in New York, there were no calls from the AP in primaries involving House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler and Rep. Yvette D. Clarke despite the two incumbents tracking well ahead of their opponents.

The same was true in nominally contested primaries upstate.

The Republican primary headlined by former Rep. Claudia Tenney, who is seeking a rematch with freshman Democrat Anthony Brindisi in the Utica-based 22nd District was not called, nor was the Democratic primary to take on Rep. John Katko in the Syracuse-area 24th District.

The story was different in Virginia, which requires all absentee ballots to be received before polls close on election day.

The AP had called all contested House primaries and the Senate GOP primary by the morning after the polls closed. Incumbent Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., did not face opposition.

Burns said candidates and others will need to be patient in the coming weeks and again more so in November.

“If you’re a candidate, if you’re an election lawyer, don’t make too many plans,” he said.

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.