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- In New York, people who tried to vote in good faith in the June primary didn't have their absentee ballots counted because of problems with postmarks, signatures, and other issues.
- Election experts told us that the problems in New York were real, but that they were not the result of fraud.
In a July 29 tweet, Trump said: "New York Mail-In voting is in a disastrous state of condition. Votes from many weeks ago are missing - a total mess. They have no idea what is going on. Rigged Election. I told you so. Same thing would happen, but on massive scale, with USA. Fake News refuses to report!"
Terms like "disastrous state" and "total mess" are subjective and open to interpretation. We recognize that in political rhetoric, there is license for hyperbole. Clearly, there were problems with voting by mail. The delayed results and other issues that emerged from New York’s June 23 primary have been documented by reporters. A month after the primary, some races had not been called. And it stemmed from the expansion of absentee voting as a way to avoid possible exposure to COVID-19 at polling places. But we wondered about Trump’s claim that "votes from many weeks ago are missing" and the election was "rigged."
The New York State Board of Elections told PolitiFact that there are an unknown number of ballots from eligible voters that cannot be counted and fall into two categories.
"We have received reports of voters who applied for absentee ballots at the front end, but did not receive them," said John Conklin, director of public information at the state board. "Some of those voters were not entitled to ballots because they were not qualified. This was a primary and some voters were not enrolled in the party having the primary. We have also received reports of voters who returned ballots that did not arrive at the board. The number of ballots in both categories is unknown."
We asked the White House press office about what Trump meant when he said "missing" and "rigged" but did not receive a response.
We also talked to voting experts and election lawyers about Trump’s claim. Several mentioned the primary in the 12th Congressional District, an election that Trump has also mentioned when talking about problems in New York. Nearly all cautioned that what Trump said in his tweet -- that the election in New York was "rigged" -- is unfounded, and that the problems in New York had to do with election workers overwhelmed by vastly more absentee ballots than is typical, as well as strict laws governing absentee ballots. The problems cannot be attributed to ballots cast fraudulently or ballots that were tampered with after they were submitted, they said.
"There’s no rigging of any election here," said Sarah Steiner, an election lawyer based in New York City whose clients hold varying positions on the mail-in ballot issue. "There are people trying to make an election work under the worst possible circumstances," she said.
Sarah Goff, deputy director of CommonCause/NY, estimates that 40 to 60 percent of the people who cast ballots in the primary statewide voted with an absentee ballot, a dramatic increase from a typical election.
Norm Ornstein, a political scientist with the American Enterprise Institute who describes himself as a political moderate, said that the situation "is more an example of ineptitude than it is malfeasance."
"The state has a long history of incompetence when it comes to running elections," said Ornstein. "There’s nothing new here."
Two candidates and a group of voters whose ballots were not counted in New York City filed a lawsuit against the state Board of Elections and won. The lawsuit, citing information from Brooklyn Democratic Chairperson Rodneyse Bichotte, states that almost 4 percent of ballots in Brooklyn alone could be invalidated. Plaintiffs’ lawyers argued in favor of counting ballots that were disqualified because of missing or late postmarks.
The number of ballots that were cast in good faith by eligible voters and were not counted for various reasons -- a missing signature, a missing postmark, or another similar problem, is not known.
We reached out to the conservative Heritage Foundation, which didn’t look at the situation in New York, but said in general, absentee and mail-in ballots are unaccounted for in every election. Hans von Spakovsky, a former member of the Federal Election Commission, cited reports filed with Congress by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and said that in the last four federal elections, 1.3 million ballots were rejected by election officials. PolitiFact found this to be about 1 percent of votes cast.
The state Board of Elections told us that an unknown number of voters who requested ballots did not receive them, and that ballots placed in the mail were not received by the board. These could be considered "missing," the word used by Trump.
But in the same tweet, Trump claims that the election in New York was "rigged," leaving the reader with the impression that these ballots are missing because there was malicious intent, where none has been proven in New York.
We rate Trump’s claim Mostly False.
Rev, transcript, President Donald Trump coronavirus press conference, Aug. 3, 2020. Accessed Aug. 4, 2020.
Rev, transcript, President Donald Trump coronavirus press conference, Aug. 4, 2020. Accessed Aug. 5, 2020.
Twitter, @realDonaldTrump tweet, July 29, 2020. Accessed July 29, 2020.
The Washington Post, "A month later, this New York City primary is still a train wreck and a warning to us all," July 25, 2020. Accessed Aug. 3, 2020.
The Atlantic, "The Chaos in New York is a Warning," July 24, 2020. Accessed July 30, 2020.
Phone interview, Perry Grossman, voting rights project attorney, New York Civil Liberties Union, July 31, 2020.
Phone interview, Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director, voting rights and elections, Brennan Center for Justice, July 31, 2020.
Email interview, John Conklin, director of public information, New York State Board of Elections, Aug. 3, 2020.
Email, Ali Najmi, election lawyer, Aug. 3, 2020.
Phone interview, Sarah Steiner, election lawyer, Aug. 3, 2020.
Phone interview, Sarah Goff, deputy director, CommonCause/NY, Aug. 3, 2020.
Phone interview, Norman Ornstein, resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute, Aug. 3, 2020.
New York Times, "Why the Botched N.Y.C. Primary Has Become the November Nightmare," Aug. 3, 2020. Accessed Aug. 3, 2020.
The City, "Primary Marred by Missing Ballots and Busted Machines, Voters Say," June 23, 2020. Accessed Aug. 4, 2020.
New York Attorney General Letitia James, memorandum of law in opposition to plaintiff’s motion for preliminary injunction, Gallagher et. al., v. NYS Board of Elections, et. al., United States District Court Southern District of New York, via Spectrum News NY1. Accessed Aug. 2, 2020.
Complaint, Gallagher et. al., v. NYS Board of Elections, et. al., United States District Court Southern District of New York, via Spectrum News NY1. Accessed Aug. 2, 2020.
New York State Executive Order 202.26, May 1, 2020. Accessed Aug. 4, 2020.
NY1, "Thousands of Absentee Ballots Invalidated, Though Voters Did Everything Right," July 30, 2020. Accessed Aug. 5, 2020.
WNYC, "Judge Says Thousands Of Primary Ballots Missing Postmarks Must Be Counted," Aug. 4, 2020. Accessed Aug. 4, 2020.
Emailed statement, Hans von Spakovsky, Manager, Election Law Reform Initiative and Senior Legal Fellow, Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, Heritage Foundation, Aug. 4, 2020.
Public Interest Legal Foundation, news release, "Report: 28 Million Mail Ballots Went Missing in Past Decade," April 13th, 2020, Accessed Aug. 5, 2020.
PolitiFact, "The misleading claim that millions of absentee ballots end up ‘missing or in landfills,'" June 9, 2020.
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