Elected Officials Demand Refund from the Brooklyn Absentee Ballot Bungle Firm

Elected Officials Demand Refund from the Brooklyn Absentee Ballot Bungle Firm
An ad on a LinkNYC kiosk in Crown Heights warns Brooklyn voters about faulty absentee ballots. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

By Greg B. Smith, originally published by THE CITY

Logo for THE CITY

Calls are growing for the city to take action against the upstate firm that sent flawed absentee ballots to voters across Brooklyn at a time when President Donald Trump is falsely attacking mail-in voting as fraud-ridden.

One elected official wants the company fired, while a second is demanding that the city Board of Elections — which awarded Phoenix Graphics a $4.6 million no-bid contract — retrieve the money paid to the vendor.

And Public Advocate Jumaane Williams mostly wants New Yorkers to know their votes will count — and not let the debacle add to the mistrust in the system Trump is encouraging with baseless claims as the Nov. 3 election approaches.

“Sadly, the effect of this is further making people doubt the system, and there has to be accountability for this,” Williams told THE CITY. “But we should all focus on the messaging on how people need to vote, and then we can tackle this vendor.”

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The city Board of Elections awarded Rochester-based Phoenix a no-bid contract in May to print and distribute millions of absentee ballots in Brooklyn and Queens after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order allowing all New Yorkers to vote by mail due to the pandemic.

BOE officials said they didn’t seek competitive bids because they didn’t have time and reached out to Phoenix because the firm for years had been printing paper ballots that voters fill out at polling sites.

The company, however, had never mailed ballots to voters for the BOE before. A 2015 audit by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli criticized the BOE’s prior no-bid contract with Phoenix, finding taxpayers would have saved $2.4 million had the board sought competitive proposals.

In its first printrun of nearly 100,000 ballots, Phoenix last month sent some New Yorkers who had requested absentee ballots return envelopes marked for other voters.

Any voter who fills out a ballot and sends it in the mismatched envelope will have their vote voided when the BOE tries to match up the signatures. It’s unknown how many flawed ballot packages have been mailed in.

BOE Executive Director Mike Ryan has said Phoenix’s system for catching this type of error didn’t function. When the company updated software it lost voter data that would have allowed it to fix the problem, he noted.

The company recently reprinted and resent a second corrected round of ballot packages at its expense.

‘Take Back that Money’

But state Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), a frequent critic of the BOE, said the board should go a step further and seek to recover the entire $4.6 million due to a breach of contract. As of last week, Phoenix had already received $1.09 million, records show.

The contract notes: “The city shall have the right to declare the contract in default upon a breach by the contractor of a material term or condition of the agreement including unsatisfactory performance of the services.”

“After the election, we need to take back that money and hopefully use the $4.6 million to help voters,” Hoylman said. “Holding the vendor accountable is crucial. They did irreparable damage to the public’s trust in voting by mail.”

State Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte speaks at a City Hall press conference, July 27, 2020. Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte, who is chairperson of the Brooklyn Democratic Party committee, wants an even tougher sanction: termination of the contract.

She expressed concerns over THE CITY’s revelations that the firm tilts Republican in its campaign donations. Over the last decade, $75,000 of $109,000 in contributions has gone to GOP candidates and causes, records show.

“That makes me even further alarmed and worried. I don’t know if it was intentional. I hope it wasn’t intentional,” she said. “But I have to say they should be fired.”

‘Sweetheart Deals’ Slammed

Bichotte also questioned why the board would forgo vendor competition with a job as important as the printing and distribution of crucial absentee ballots voters need during the coronavirus pandemic. She noted that relying on no-bid contracts often means cutting out minority- and women-owned outfits.

“I am alarmed by the no-bid contract in this case and have requested the process be opened up to allow bids from nonpartisan, qualified vendors, including MWBE’s,” she said “I have worked hard to facilitate their participation, and to make the bidding processes for state contracts more open and transparent. Taxpayers should not have to bear the extraordinary costs of these sweetheart deals.”

The board was also criticized for not sending staff to Rochester to monitor the printing of the ballots.

When Ryan provided his explanation for what happened in a virtual meeting with the Brooklyn Democratic Committee’s executive board, board member Josh Skaller reacted angrily to the BOE’s hands-off approach.

”You absolutely send somebody to spot check,” Skaller said. “You need to know the ballots you’re sending out are on the up and up.

Ryan told the Kings County Democratic Committee the BOE plans a new approach going forward, with plans to bid out the absentee ballot work for the next election and possibly send staff to oversee the actual printing and distribution of ballots.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.