How micromanaging cut Cuomo down to size

Governor Cuomo in New York City on September 24th.
Governor Cuomo in New York City on September 24th.
Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Cuomo in New York City on September 24th.

How micromanaging cut Cuomo down to size

Getting involved in voting mishaps in Brooklyn is not making the governor look all-powerful.
October 1, 2020

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has projected the image of an all-powerful, can-do executive with an uncanny ability to outmaneuver his political rivals, but the three-term governor might have overplayed his hand this week through an ill-fated effort to fix voting problems in Brooklyn.

“He is establishing evidence so he can say on election night:  ‘I told you this election was going to be fraudulent,” Cuomo told reporters on Thursday of President Donald Trump, who is openly suggesting he will not accept the November election results. “Is Brooklyn one of those situations? Yes.” 

Cuomo might have thought that he had a good plan to make sure that nearly 100,000 Brooklyn voters who received the wrong absentee ballot return envelope could vote in the upcoming November election by sending them only new envelopes. But now that the New York City Board of Elections is going with its original plan to send new ballots, in addition to correct return envelopes, to affected voters all that Cuomo appears to have accomplished was demonstrating the limits of his power. And it gave progressive lawmakers another reason to dislike him and threaten him with a primary challenge in 2022.

The first step towards failure began earlier this week, following media reports that the New York City BOE sent as many as 100,000 ballots with mislabeled return envelopes to Brooklyn voters. A Cuomo administration official got on the phone with the city BOE and suggested that they just send some new envelopes instead of new ballots as well. Not only would this save some paper, it would also rob President Donald Trump of some fodder for his lie-based misinformation campaign about rampant fraud with mail-in ballots. 

“There is nothing wrong with the actual ballots and sending 100,000 duplicate ballots seems to be an over correction,” Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, told WNYC. The Cuomo administration noted that it was simply offering a suggestion to the board, whose members are appointed by Democratic and Republican party leaders in the five boroughs, but the response by state lawmakers reflected simmering conflict between Cuomo and some of the progressive reformers recently elected to the state Senate from New York City. 

“This is straight up disenfranchisement and an affront to our democracy,” said state Senate Elections Committee Chair Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn tweeted Tuesday. Fellow freshman state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi from the Bronx – who Azzopardi once infamously referred to as one of three “fucking idiots” in the state Legislature – tweeted a threat to primary Cuomo if the board went with his plan. “Are you drunk?” Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa fired back. Clapping back at progressives on Twitter was likely not the sort of attention the administration was seeking when it first got involved with the whole hubbub over the ballots.

In fairness to the Cuomo administration, the city BOE’s long record of electoral failure shows how they would often benefit from good advice. The whole problem started because of the agency’s incompetence, and this isn’t the first time, even just this year: One-quarter of all Brooklyn ballots were invalidated during the June 23 primary election. 

But good advice does not appear to be what the administration was offering when it first suggested sending just the envelopes. Cost is not an issue because the Rochester-based printer had already agreed to pay for a new round of voting packages, and no one knows how many voters might have thrown out their ballots or sent them back in the wrong envelope – which won’t be counted because the voter’s name has to match the name on the envelope – before they receive the new return envelope, which will be useless if the voter doesn’t have a ballot. 

Election law experts favored the BOE plan. “Replacing mismatched sets of ballots and inner envelopes with matched sets enfranchises these voters and ensures their votes are counted,” said election lawyer Sarah Steiner. “Many people will have discarded the wrong ballot along with the envelope, and many more will be confused and possibly disenfranchised by receiving only an envelope and no ballot.” She and other legal experts told City & State that sending new ballots would not give Trump any new basis for challenging election results in New York. 

Experts also said that the only thing the governor’s approach would do is confuse voters. The city BOE would have had to abandon its announced plan to deal with the problem. Voters would need to know to use the ballots they have already received while awaiting new return envelopes. And the board would have to somehow identify voters who sent in their ballot with the wrong envelope or threw out their ballot and get new ballots to them anyway. 

The fact that Trump has seized on the issue would seem to show that the governor was onto something politically by advising that no new duplicate ballots get sent out. “This is exactly what I'm talking about,” Trump said Wednesday. “It's a big, big scale problem; 100,000 ballots went out to New Yorkers with the wrong names on them, wrong envelopes, wrong everything." But Trump has been making spurious allegations of voter fraud since 2016, and he was already pointing to New York’s problems from the primaries as justification. By now, it’s clear that nothing Democrats do to appease him, not even making it harder for their own supporters to vote, will stop Trump from casting doubt on any election result he doesn’t like. 

Cuomo’s proclivity for micromanaging could explain why he could not resist getting himself involved in the issue. Sometimes it works well, such as when he averted an L train shutdown and made sure the state had enough hospital capacity during the first weeks of the pandemic. 

But this has not always been a good trait. His involvement in decision making at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been blamed for setbacks such as the swift departure of New York City Transit President Andy Byford. Recent reporting by The Wall Street Journal, has highlighted how Cuomo overruled local officials who wanted to move faster in implementing social distancing restrictions during the pandemic. His recent power plays with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio underscore how the governor wants to be the one calling the shots on police reform, reopening public schools, or shutting down local businesses in response to new outbreaks of the coronavirus. 

The Cuomo administration contends that merely offering a suggestion doesn’t constitute micromanagement. “Anyone trying to shove this into a profile on micromanaging will need an extra large shoe horn,” Azzopardi told City & State of Cuomo’s suggestion this week on fixing voting in Brooklyn. After this article was published, Azzopardi followed up to say that if the administration had wanted to micromanage, they would have issued an executive order compelling the city BOE to implement the governor’s suggestion. “We offered a solution, but always said it was up to them,” he added in a statement on Thursday. 

Getting involved in how the city BOE handles return envelopes was an unusual move for a governor to make in the process, according to attorney Ken Fisher, a former member of the City Council. “It's considered party business and they're the ones that are designated to deal with it,” he told City & State. In the event that the board needs some help, state party leaders sometimes get involved, he added. The Cuomo administration contends that merely offering a suggestion doesn’t constitute micromanagement. 

Democratic State Party Chair Jay Jacobs said Cuomo’s involvement was appropriate. “While it is correct that the governor does not have direct oversight of the electoral electoral process, he is still the governor of the state, and his responsibility is to ensure that the people believe and understand that we're going to have fair elections,” Jacobs told City & State. 

But the end result in this case is that the BOE is proceeding with its plan, Trump will get his talking point – not that it makes any real difference, according to election lawyers – and progressives are up in arms against Cuomo, which isn’t making him look so big and powerful after all. 

This article has been updated post-publication to include additional comment from Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi.

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.