One full month after Election Day, New York finally closed the books on 2020. Although there is still one Congressional race outstanding, the final tallies are in for November’s elections. What is most notable about the election is that by allowing the widespread use of mail-in ballots due to the pandemic, the outcome initially seen on Election Day was dramatically changed after all paper ballots were counted.
While there was no doubt that Democrat Joe Biden would carry New York, his margin grew significantly once the paper ballots were counted. On Election Day, Biden had a solid lead: Biden received 3.7 million votes to President Trump’s 2.8 million, a margin of nearly 1 million votes cast on November 3rd.
But once the paper ballots were counted, the President-elect’s margin swelled. Biden received 5.2 million votes to Trump’s 3.2 million, doubling the President-elect’s lead. Once all the dust had settled, it looked like Biden had won 80 percent of the paper ballots and that gave him his overwhelming victory.
Compared to 2016 Presidential Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, Biden received 60 percent of the votes, while Clinton had garnered 58 percent. Biden carried 21 of New York 62 counties, while Clinton carried 17.
Moreover, Biden had increased the Democrats’ margin of victory in the downstate suburbs and even carried the total aggregate vote for all counties north of Westchester (Clinton had lost). While Biden crushed Trump in the total New York City count, the President got more votes in the Big Apple than he had in 2016.
New York’s total voter turnout swelled dramatically – even though the state’s overall population has remained stagnant between 2016 and 2020. In 2016, 7.8 million New Yorkers voted in the Presidential election, but in 2020 that number jumped to 8.7 million. While it is clear that voter turnout was high across the country, compared to the rest of the nation, New York’s voter participation looks to be below the national average – as it usually is.
Not only was 2020 the first Presidential election in which New Yorkers could vote by mail and vote early, it was the first year with new, and much more stringent, requirements for minor political parties to qualify for future ballots.
For years, New York allowed minor parties that received 50,000 votes or more in gubernatorial elections to automatically qualify for future ballots and to enroll members on voter registration forms. This status is a huge advantage for a political party.
As a result of a big push by Governor Cuomo that standard was changed. In order to automatically qualify for the ballot, minor parties now must garner far more votes (in November it was at least 130,000 votes) in both the gubernatorial and presidential election years.
This election, only the Conservative and Working Families Parties hit that mark. Other minor parties, for example the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, failed to reach the new minimum and are now knocked off from having automatic ballot access.
The surge in mail-in ballots not only swelled the President-elect’s lead, but it also dramatically changed the preliminary vote tallies in down ballot races.
On Election Day, the Republican Party was ecstatic: It looked like they had picked up three New York Congressional seats, four state Senate seats, and at least eleven state Assembly seats – despite Biden’s solid win.
The President-elect’s performance in mail in ballots – in which he took by an apparent 80-20 margin – was replicated in down ballot races. Instead of Republicans gaining three Congressional seats, they have picked up one and there is one race that is still too close to call. Instead of Republicans gaining four state Senate seats, it turns out that the Democrats picked up a net of three. And the Assembly margin stayed the same.
One example of the swing in final vote tallies after counting mail-ins was in the third Congressional district on Long Island. On Election Day, incumbent Democrat Tom Suozzi was down by 4,000 votes; once the paper ballots were counted, he had won by over 40,000.
Back in Albany, for the 2021 legislative session Democrats will have “supermajorities” in both legislative houses, instead of having lost seats. That new political power will give them a greater say in the policymaking of state government. One area that they should examine is how New York runs elections.
It took more than a month to properly tally the votes. If New York had been crucial to determining the winner of the Presidency, it would have been the target of political pundits and late-night comedians. While it is reasonable to consider that this was the first time the state had run an election with large numbers of mail-in ballots, New York’s overall voter participation is expected, once again, to be below the national average.
And New Yorkers had to endure long lines as well as mishaps with ballots. One policy to look at is whether New Yorkers should continue to rely on the two major political parties to run the state’s elections. The parties’ interest is in their own success, not necessarily the public’s interest in a flourishing democracy.
Even a well-run elections bureaucracy needs resources. The board of elections estimated that they would need $50 million to properly administer the November elections. It’s clear that they didn’t get it.
Hearings are needed. For too long, New Yorkers have had to suffer due to poorly resourced and inadequately managed elections. Legislative hearings are a first step to digging into the problems and advancing solutions. Elections are the essential machines of our democracy and in New York they are in serious need of repair and overhaul.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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