EDITORIAL: Not so happy returns

WHAT SOMEBODY SHOULD have said was: “This is a good idea but we’re not gonna get away with it and we don’t need trouble.” Too bad that’s not the way these stories unfold, because what they did say was: “Yeah, let’s do it!”

So the county Democratic Committee went ahead and sent filled-out application forms for absentee ballots for the November 3 General Election, That was “good idea” part. On the envelope, where it should have had the return address of the Democratic Committee, the committee intentionally put the county Board of Elections. That’s the “what-were-you-thinking” part.

In fairness, the Democrats say they did check the envelope address with the U.S. Postal Service. Good move, except that the Postal Service has no authority over the Board of Elections. And the Dems didn’t bother to check it with either the Democratic or the Republican county election commissioners.

The mailing went out at the end of September and it wasn’t long before some voters—we don’t know how many—who had already applied for absentee ballots started calling the Board of Elections to ask about the new form (from the Dems) and what it meant for the application they had already requested. By September 29 Republican Election Commissioner Kelly Miller-Simmons, a rookie at this post, announced that she had filed a complaint against the Democratic Committee with unnamed “state and federal authorities” accusing the committee of “fraudulently misrepresenting an absentee mailing.”

This verbal hyperventilation aside, she has a point. Most postal patrons have received mountains of of junk mail, some of it made to look like it comes from some sort of government source, requesting bogus payments or offering phony prizes. But the Democrats didn’t want to defraud anybody, let alone other Democrats (the only people who received the mailing). That would be self destructive. But while Democrats can be good at that, this mailing sought to impart a sense of urgency about voting in this election.

But what the Democratic Committee did was attempt to manipulate their fellow Democrats into voting. There are plenty of good reasons why people would welcome help voting with absentee ballots, or at least ones that don’t create more confusion than they resolve. This return address scheme isn’t one of them. And yet our willingness as a newspaper and that of other local news sources to report this postal kerfuffle may raise the visibility of absentee voting, which is what the Democratic Committee wanted to begin with.

Her complaint about fraudulent behavior reveals Ms. Miller-Simmons’ lack of knowledge about how direct mail works. Mailing companies obtain indicia from the Postal Service and use them to mail marketing materials on behalf of clients like The Democratic Committee. It’s cheaper and quicker than sticking stamps on every letter and postcard. If Ms. Miller-Simmons pursues a political career it’s likely she’ll use indicia for this type of direct mail.

Her charges have no substance other than the most important of all: election transparency. The zeal of the Democratic Committee to make it possible for more people than ever to vote—in this case, by absentee ballot—overcame common sense. The aims were worthy, the means… not so much.

New York used to have strict laws about who could use an absentee ballot. They were a barrier to full citizenship. All it took to loosen them up was a pandemic. If there are elections in the future, scholars may wonder why government once erected hurdles when what people really wanted was a way to participate in the activity that defines a democracy.

There are plenty of hurdles left all over the country. We still have gerrymandered election districts which are a gift to the party in power. And we know how the current administration has fed us endless lies about voter fraud —there is not evidence of a significant threat from fraud—and imaginary logistical problems. Undoubtedly hostile nations are taking advantage of this effort to cast doubt about the legitimacy of our election process.

Let’s be clear. The Democratic Committee made an error of judgment. Ms. Miller-Simmons overreacted. Any further attempt to blow this out of proportion could only be seen as part of the assault on our election system. This must end now.

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