Report: No Intentional Interference In Faulty Absentee Ballots For 2020 Election

The New York City Department of Investigation found no evidence of an intentional printer error in an incident that led to thousands of faulty absentee ballot packages being mailed out to voters in Brooklyn ahead of the presidential election last November.

The problem emerged in September 2020 when voters in Brooklyn began reporting to Gothamist/WNYC and others that they received an absentee ballot package addressed to them, but containing an inner “oath envelope” which required their signature that contained a different voter’s name and address.

The misprint came at a moment of heightened scrutiny for elections officials across the nation as former President Donald Trump and his Republican supporters sought to cast doubt on the reliability of elections systems ahead of the vote in November. Locally, it put additional pressure on the New York City Board of Elections, a frequent target for criticism for how it administers elections.

Ultimately, nearly 100,000 replacement absentee ballots were sent to those potentially affected.

At the time, BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan laid the blame squarely on the print vendor, Phoenix Graphics, based in Rochester, New York, which the agency contracted to print and mail ballots for voters in Brooklyn and Queens. A second vendor, Fort Orange Press, was handling ballots for Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island.

The report released by DOI on Thursday validated his assertion, blaming the error on a malfunction at Phoenix Graphics.

“DOI found no intent or motivation to intentionally disrupt Phoenix Graphics’ print run of the absentee ballots; nor did DOI find that the BOE improperly awarded a contract to Phoenix Graphics,” DOI Commissioner Margaret Garnett said in a statement. “The facts determined during this investigation are consistent with some deficiencies in Phoenix Graphics’ quality controls and a lapse in the company’s operation of a complex printing process.”

Investigators were trying to determine if there was anything improper about how the city BOE selected Phoenix Graphics and whether anyone purposefully disrupted the ballot printing and distribution process. The city was working with both Phoenix Graphics and Fort Orange Press to address a spike in absentee ballot requests during the pandemic.

In an interview with DOI, Ryan said that BOE wanted to split the total number of ballot packages assigned between two vendors, with Phoenix Graphics’ awarded a $4.6 million contract while the Fort Orange Press contract was for $6 million.

While the vendors were not selected through a competitive bidding process, investigators found an internal memo from Ryan that cited Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order which said local elections boards could secure vendors for absentee ballots without the normal bidding process. DOI investigators found nothing wrong with the way the contract was awarded.

In trying to determine if there was any external interference that caused the ballot envelope misprints, investigators interviewed Phoenix Graphics President Salvatore DeBiase, who said he and his staff could not determine exactly what caused the mismatch between the absentee ballot package addressed to the voter and the inner oath envelope they were supposed to sign.

DeBiase said he and his staff did identify at least two potential mechanical malfunctions that could lead the oath envelopes to be pushed into the wrong pile for sorting. The company posted a statement on Twitter in September blaming the envelope errors on “mechanical-inserting issues.”

At least one employee was monitoring the printing and assembly of the absentee ballot envelopes when the mismatched packages were assembled. The employee, whose name is not included in the report, testified to DOI that they saw “one oath envelope fall on top of the wrong pile of components,” the report states. That employee then sought assistance from the machine manufacturer’s technician, who was working at the site that day. The employee told DOI that they did not see “any more oath envelopes drop into the wrong pile.”

Normally, the machine would generate a detailed report about every print run that could have provided more information about the specific cause of the envelope error. DeBiase told investigators that by the time he learned of the problem, the machine’s history had been deleted after installation of new software.

“DeBiase and two other Phoenix Graphics employees testified that they had no reason to believe that anyone at Phoenix Graphics had deliberately caused the envelope mismatch. They all further testified that they had never heard of any employee being asked by any outside party to take deliberate measures in order to disrupt Phoenix Graphics’ ballot printing,” according to the DOI report.

While Phoenix Graphics has made changes to its operations, the city BOE will not be using the vendor for the June primary election, opting to work exclusively with Fort Orange Press. Officials conducted a site visit of the facility on April 28th. According to its latest figures, the city BOE has already processed and mailed 80,781 absentee ballots for the primary election.

Early voting begins on June 12th and Primary Day is on June 22nd. The last day to request absentee ballot is June 15th.