The latest challenge posed by the pandemic has made West Harlem residents reevaluate how they will vote in the 2020 presidential election.
On Aug. 20, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an order that allows every New Yorker to request an absentee ballot in light of COVID-19. Proponents see this as a way to enfranchise voters, many of whom may not have traditional forms of voter ID, and promote public health during the pandemic.
However, with mounting logistical concerns around mail-in ballots and preexisting safety concerns around in-person voting, some West Harlem residents said they were concerned they might not get the chance to have their voices heard even with this new development.
In recent years, voter turnout for Manhattan Community District 9—home to Morningside Heights, Hamilton Heights, and Manhattanville—has been higher than the New York City average. The pandemic, however, has threatened voter turnout as Manhattan saw a nine percent decrease between the 2016 and 2020 presidential primaries.
CD9 is home to a sizable senior and immunocompromised population that has been hit hard by the pandemic, and as a result, many residents have been looking to mail-in ballots as proponents argue that it is a safe way to maintain voter turnout in the community.
Tariq Triano is a Harlem resident that works with the Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy Foundation to provide PPE and meals to the Harlem community during the pandemic. Although his first choice would be to vote in person, he said it is essential to have a way for residents to vote safely during the pandemic.
“I personally do not feel comfortable voting in person unless there are appropriate measures,” Triano said. “I think a lot of people would love the mail-in ballot, rather than dealing with the long wait times at the polls.”
However, with the Postal Service struggling, some are wary about if this is a viable option.
The Postal Service has faced several obstacles in recent years, partly due to the decline of physical mail, which resulted in a total loss of $9 billion last year even before the pandemic hit.
“One aspect of these changes that may be difficult for employees is that—temporarily—we may see mail left behind or mail on the workroom floor or docks, which is not typical,” reads one internal memo titled “Pivoting for our Future”.
With a sizable percentage of the community’s population expected to rely on mail-in ballots due to COVID-19, the changes to Postal Service routes could disadvantage residents and affect access to ballots, wrote Rep. Adriano Espaillat in a letter to Letitia James, New York attorney general, regarding these concerns.
Amid these changes, some Harlem residents have reported the removal of a number of Postal Service mailboxes in the neighborhood, an issue that raised concern about the future of mail-in ballots in the community. Mailbox removal in the community could limit access to absentee voting, which makes voting easier for those who are unable to vote in person due to mobility or work related conflicts. For working class residents in West Harlem, access to mail-in voting could mean giving more residents the chance to participate in the upcoming election.
After much criticism and a lawsuit filed by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, the Postal Service agreed to reverse the changes on Wednesday. To ensure the previous delays do not affect the upcoming election, the agreement also requires the Postal Service to prioritize election mail.
With the concerns around mail-in ballots, in-person voting has become more attractive as the most reliable way to vote in the upcoming election—however, that comes with the risk of further spreading the virus.
This alternative to mail-in ballots presents challenges of its own that could deter senior citizens from voting in the election. With such a large population of seniors residing in CD9 who are at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19, some worry about the senior turnout to in-person polls, said CB9 health and environment co-chair Miriam Aristy Farer.
According to past data from the New York City Campaign Finance Board, individuals aged 60 to 69 turned out to vote at a consistently higher rate than all other age groups.
“When the pandemic was at its peak, we were one of the hardest hit communities in Manhattan,” Aristy-Farer said. “Knowing that, I think some of our seniors are still afraid to come out.”
Aristy-Farer also noted concerns around the idea of long wait times at the poll stations during a pandemic, as well as the current layout and overcrowding. These conditions are all not accommodating for seniors and immunocompromised individuals.
As a response to the concerns, the New York City Campaign Finance Board website has promoted early voting for New York City residents. Early voting allows residents to vote in person up to 10 days before Election Day at a designated location.
Less crowding, shorter wait times, and increased availability of the polls are often highlighted as benefits of early voting.
However, since many polling sites are schools, gymnasiums, and nonprofits, they cannot accommodate week-long closures, meaning that the number of locations for the early voting period is significantly low. Because of the decrease in sites, residents often have longer commutes to the polls.
With the operational issues of mail-in ballots and the health concerns that in-person voting raises, many Harlem residents face a decision of how to safely get their voices heard. The best way to do that, however, is not clear, said political science department chair at Columbia University Gregory Wawro.
“This idea that somehow you can be more confident that one method of voting will be more reliable … there are just so many factors,” Wawro said. “I’m sure there will be doubts in many voters about the outcomes.”
Despite the difficult decision the community faces, Aristy-Farer said CD9 will do whatever it takes to make sure that their voices are heard.
“We saw it in the last election; we lined up for hours happily and quietly, and we’ll do so again this year,” Aristy-Farer said.
“Voting in an African-American community means a lot,” she added. “[W]e have power and we have to start using it, and a big part of it is our vote.”
Staff writer Destiny Glover can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Spectator on Twitter at @ColumbiaSpec.