In the last month, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) has been busy. She has chaired hearings in the House Oversight Committee on U.S. fighter jet programs and cybersecurity, called for investigations into the Trump administration’s use of federal troops in American cities and treatment of Planned Parenthood clinics, and cast numerous votes on the House floor.
But Maloney has been without a key piece of information as she goes about her business: whether she won her primary election on June 23. Thirty-three days after primary day, Maloney holds a 648-vote lead over challenger Suraj Patel, earning 41.56 percent of the vote to Patel’s 39.93 percent, according to the latest tally from the New York City Board of Elections. With the race so tight and ballots still left to be counted, definitively declaring a winner has proved impossible.
The delay is due to the coronavirus pandemic, which devastated New York and prompted many voters to cast absentee ballots, creating an avalanche of mail that utterly overwhelmed a New York City Board of Elections widely seen as inept even in ordinary times.
Now Maloney and Patel are in a protracted state of limbo, dedicating campaign resources to keeping a vigilant eye on the veracity of officials’ ballot-counting, contacting individual voters to gather information, and marshalling volunteers to do all that work. It’s a hard-fought process that requires more staff, money, time, and energy at the tail end of an already hard-fought campaign. And experts say it’s a situation that’s poised to repeat in contests around the country in November as COVID-19 radically alters the normal voting landscape.
As Patel put it to The Daily Beast, the experience has been like treating a first vote count as a recount. For his campaign, that’s entailed immediately shifting gears. “We were ill-equipped to be ready for this. We’re a grassroots campaign built on energy, excitement, volunteers,” Patel said. “I’d love to have our team focusing on the Census, anything else, but if I have to have people at the Board of Elections watching ballots being opened because our opponent also has it, that is just a waste of time.”
Maloney’s team was no more prepared for the ordeal. “I don’t think any of us really knew that was going to happen,” a senior Maloney campaign staffer told The Daily Beast. The campaign is confident the race will be called in her favor given her current lead, and have been since June 23, the staffer said. “I’ve had every confidence that we had won, and the problem was, our election looked ridiculously close for no reason other than it was a third of the way through.”
The current situation in New York’s 12th District might be an extreme example of the coronavirus pandemic’s capacity to seriously disrupt the way elections are conducted in America. But in the eyes of experts, it could be a preview of November—and should serve as a wake-up call for candidates around the country to prepare to grapple with the kind of limbo that Maloney and Patel are stuck in now.
“I don’t think folks know what to do,” said Doug Heye, a veteran GOP strategist who said he’s noticed very little chatter about how down-ballot candidates might prepare themselves for a worst-case scenario like New York is experiencing. “The world has changed very quickly on this… For individual campaigns, you now have to be prepared for recounts—or counts, as they were—in a way you might not be.”
Candidates have been focusing on getting the vote out, not necessarily “what’s next,” said Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Rights and Elections Project. “Candidates in recent elections in New York now realize the importance of the last part.”
Well before the turn of events in New York, where several other congressional races were finally called weeks after June 23, it was accepted in political circles that thanks to COVID-19, Election Day 2020 wouldn’t be a traditional one. With most jurisdictions expanding the ability to vote by mail due to public health concerns over in-person voting—and many predicting historic levels of turnout in the race between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden—protracted counting processes are expected. The battles for the White House, House, and Senate may not be totally resolved for weeks, a far cry from the election-night race projections that have gone out when California closes its polls.
For many, the prospect of such a delay isn’t concerning if it means that voters are able to exercise their rights safely and have their votes accurately counted. But public trust in the process isn’t a given: High-profile politicians have chipped away at its integrity in recent months. Chiefly, Trump has stoked fears, without any evidence, that Biden and the Democrats will “steal” the election through absentee voting, invoking loaded images of ballot-stuffing and other outright fraudulent practices.
Democrats, and even some Republicans, see Trump’s effort as planting a seed for distrust in the final outcome, should it not go his way. “We have a crisis of confidence that is being fanned by the president, and we have a crisis of logistics that is being fanned by the pandemic,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the Democratic think tank Third Way and an alumnus of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns. “It’s going to cause enormous chaos and confusion.”
To those who went through the election recount in the 2000 presidential election, 2020 has the possibility to make the battle between George W. Bush and Al Gore over contested votes in Florida look tame. “The recount sucked every molecule of oxygen out of the air, and that was one recount in one race in one state,” said Bennett. “The overlay of economic catastrophe, a public health disaster, and deep suspicion… it’s a very scary thing to contemplate.”
Most expect the brunt of public attention to focus on the presidential race, should it remain undecided after Nov. 3. But voting delays are poised to affect the fight for the Senate, where an extended count in just one state could decide control of the chamber, or in the House, where Democrats are expected to retain a majority but delays in a handful of seats could leave control of the gavel unresolved.
The prospect of a long period this fall when the entire country experiences something akin to what voters in New York’s 12th District are experiencing now has crossed the minds of longtime political hands. “It’s something to be worried about, whether people are prepared for that kind of inconclusive situation for weeks after an election, what people will make of that and whether or not they see it as the system playing out the way it’s supposed to,” said Morales-Doyle.
“There’s always one outlier where we don’t know it for a couple of weeks, so we’re used to that,” said Heye. “What we’re not used to, and potentially not prepared for, is this could happen in 25 races. That could leave the balance of the House or the Senate in question.”
Heye added that it’s going to be more important than ever that campaigns lawyer up well before Election Day—not on it or just after, as they typically do when it becomes clear a recount is imminent.
“The biggest area of concern is places that don’t get national attention,” said Third Way’s Bennett. “We’re going to be focused on the six, seven states in the presidential race, a handful of Senate races. If you’re running in a congressional district that’s outside of those, it’s going to be tough to get the resources and attention to those questions.”
Already, some party entities are laying the groundwork for these scenarios. Building on the experience of states like California, whose expansive absentee ballot program has in the past led to lengthy delays in calling close races, operatives in Washington are providing guidance for campaigns nationwide in how to conduct what’s called absentee ballot “chasing”—communicating with likely absentee voters frequently to ensure they’ve sent in their ballots well ahead of time. And the Democratic Party’s official House campaign arm has already begun advising candidates around the country to prepare now for their races not to be called on Election Day, according to an official there.
Battle-hardened New Yorkers have some hope that their terrible experience is not an exact preview of what the rest of the country will experience. Both the Patel and Maloney camps noted that in Kentucky, which held its primary the same day as New York’s, officials were hit with a massive increase in absentee ballots and were able to deliver results relatively quickly. And New York politicos believe their own state and city Board of Elections are such a “clusterfuck,” as one operative put it, that nearly every other jurisdiction should be better off.
Although the Maloney and Patel campaigns fought a bitter battle, they agree on two counts: that their experience should still serve as a warning to others—a “canary in the coal mine,” said Patel—and that they wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
“I hope no one has to go through what our race is,” the Maloney campaign staffer said. “I do think, if you’re a state that doesn’t do mail ballots and is trying to do this, you may have to wait.”
“I would say to other campaigns, be prepared to turn around and, unfortunately, the fight doesn’t end at Election Day,” said Patel. “Fortunately, I graciously accept the role of guinea pig who had an election that was completely up in the air here.”