The Implications of Voter Suppression in New York City During a Pandemic
November 2, 2020
By Katherine Otilia Zapata
Let’s be frank, New York City has absolutely faced a multitude of adversities throughout the coronavirus pandemic; but its recent string of voting-related issues cannot simply be wiped away using COVID-19 as an excuse. Because when we analyze the complications—such as the tardiness of late absentee ballot deliveries due to mismanagement in the New York Board of Elections (NYC BOE), and the mass distribution of error-filled absentee ballots—these “incidents” have echoes of tried and true voter suppression tactics—and that leads us to wonder: is voting in New York really as safe and unbiased as we’re meant to believe?
While COVID-19 has unquestionably changed business-as-usual for so many, it’s far from unusual—and far from new—that the NYC BOE incurs a myriad of mistakes during its elections. Within the last four years alone, it has been the authority behind blunders such as:
- Purging 200,000 voters from the 2018 Democratic primary election;
- Sending out late ballots during the 2020 June primary elections, causing questions of safety risks for voters during a pandemic;
- Poll workers providing voters with only a presidential primary ballot, and giving misleading information on the elections underway; and
- Vendors mislabeling ballots and printing incomplete ballots, which were then delivered to NYC voters anyway.
As Americans, we’ve always been taught that everyone’s vote matters—and this is perhaps true this year more than ever before. As New Yorkers, we hope to rely on our institutions, but the inability of the NYC BOE to protect this most important tenet is an infraction of our Constitutional rights, and a danger to all—and most especially to our vulnerable citizens.
Being one of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse cities in the world, these recent election problems have stirred up concerns regarding the detrimental effects on our marginalized communities, who have long fought not only to ensure the viability of elections that serve us, but to also prove that our voices deserve to be heard. While states like Georgia and Texas are more well-known for their oppressive tactics—and have both historically enacted faulty voting practices—if we’ve learned anything from the NYC BOE, it’s that being situated above the Mason-Dixon line may not be enough to eliminate fears of voter suppression.
The implications of the NYC BOE’s “mistakes” are very real and should not be ignored. By continually allowing for such occurrences, New York City is illustrating to its citizens—and particularly its citizens of color—that they are right to be worried that their vote may not count., Furthermore, they are likewise right to question the bureaucratic systems that were originally erected in order to—theoretically, it seems—protect them.
We must make certain that election vendors are answerable for their mistakes; and we must hold the city’s Board of Elections accountable, not only because of its most recent actions, but because a continuation of such behavior will put millions of voices at risk.
We are in the year 2020, we are in one of the most diverse cities on Earth, and we are still placing the onus of voting on our most historically burdened citizens. We are still finding ways to suppress voters of color, and our leaders are still deflecting the responsibility therein.
Let’s be frank, again. If we don’t seek to change now—in an election year so critical to the identity of our country—if we don’t seek to uplift the voices of all, we will be failing ourselves and the integrity of this great city.
Katherine Otilia Zapata serves as the National Research Manager for Democrats for Education Reform, where she oversees the organization’s national political work and supports state coalitions using a racial equity lens.
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