ALBANY — After the June primary in New York State unraveled under a mass of problems, local elections officials immediately issued a plea: To stand any chance of handling the five million absentee ballots expected on Election Day, far more state funding would be needed.
But the State Board of Elections had a different solution in mind.
It recommended that county boards apply for grants — not from the state, but from a nonprofit foundation, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, that are backed by a $250 million donation from Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, and his wife, Priscilla Chan, who said they were seeking to “preserve the integrity of our elections.”
The recommendation seemed curious: It was Facebook’s lack of oversight of disinformation in the 2016 election, after all, which led to accusations of electoral meddling and strong condemnations from Democrats and some Republicans.
Election officials have insisted that they will likely need up to $50 million for extra staff, equipment and mailings to avoid a repeat of the primary mess when some congressional races went weeks without results and tens of thousands of ballots were disqualified.
By far the largest board seeking such help is the New York City Board of Elections, where the worst of the problems arose in the June primary, and which has already suffered an embarrassing mistake: As many as 100,000 voters in Brooklyn received faulty absentee ballots this week because of a mistake by a vendor.
The city’s problems drew ridicule from President Trump, who cited them in his unfounded claims that mail-in voting was susceptible to fraud. Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter this week, “Big Fraud, Unfixable!”
In New York, local boards of elections are largely autonomous, operating independently of mayors or county executives. And although the boards follow regulations and guidance issued by the State Board of Elections, there are often disparities in how each county handles Election Day issues.
Yet there seems to be consensus among the local boards that they sorely need financial assistance to deal with a November election like no other.
Good government groups ridiculed the idea that the state, which has a $175 billion budget, was directing local election officials to get help from private sources funded by Facebook’s riches.
“Something is seriously wrong with New York State’s democracy when less than two months before this November’s historic vote, local boards of election are so broke they are pleading for funding from a charity,” five groups, including the state chapters of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, wrote in a letter to the governor in mid-September, asking for $50 million in emergency election funds.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration, however, was blunt about the unlikelihood of extra state funding for local boards.
“Unless the advocates want to lend us their money tree, in the absence of additional federal funding there isn’t any,” Rich Azzopardi, a senior adviser to the governor, said.
The city board did not seek a specific grant amount, but said any financial support would help backfill a number of costly improvements, including purchasing $2 million in high-speed scanners for each borough, staffing up and finding larger counting locations — a necessity for the often arduous process of tallying absentee ballots.
But in the city and elsewhere in the state, election officials say that additional expenses — hiring temporary employees, increased postage and printing costs, personal protective equipment for poll workers — are secondary at this point to making sure the public has confidence in election results and fairness.
“We have a serious and awesome responsibility to participate in the presidential election process, and we will do that,” said Michael Ryan, the executive director of the New York City Board of Elections. “And funding will not be the impediment.”
Officials say they are also struggling to honor a series of executive orders related to the election issued by Governor Cuomo, who is facing a multibillion budget deficit and has given no indication that local boards should expect financial help from Albany.
“The state has given a lot of directives and changes, but not a lot of resources to implement them,” said Jason Schofield, the Republican Party commissioner in Rensselaer County, east of Albany. “It’s easy to tell people what to do.”
With the state still recovering from the coronavirus crisis and wary of a second wave, Mr. Cuomo has greatly increased access to absentee voting, allowing all the state’s nearly 13 million registered voters to request an absentee ballot if they cannot show up at a polling location because of the risk of contracting coronavirus.
The appeal of vote-by-mail in the middle of a pandemic seems undeniable: On Friday, Mr. Ryan said the city had already processed about 560,000 ballots. Many suburban and upstate counties were experiencing similar surges. In Onondaga County, which includes Syracuse, officials are girding for 125,000 absentee ballots, about eight times its record for a general election. On Long Island, officials have already received more than 250,000 requests for absentee ballots.
The expansion of absentee voting to every voter is one of a raft of new election rules and responsibilities that the governor has recently announced, seemingly determined to answer criticism of the state’s performance in the primary. They include requiring boards of elections to allow ballots to be dropped at board offices and polling locations; ordering a redesign of absentee ballots; and requiring boards to submit staffing plans to the state.
Mr. Cuomo also signed several bills in late August to ease rules surrounding disqualification of ballots, including allowing those received the day after the election without a postmark to be counted. The primary saw tens of thousands of disqualified ballots, often for minor issues like missing signatures on envelopes or envelopes sealed with tape, not saliva; a new law will allow those ballots to be “cured,” after election officials contact voters.
But each of those changes have also eaten up valuable time and money, election officials say.
“Everybody is swamped, everybody is overwhelmed,” said Vicky Olin, a Republican commissioner in Steuben County, in the state’s Southern Tier, and an officer with the state association of election commissioners. “And every executive order we get puts us probably another two weeks behind.”
The state received $20 million in federal funds that were earmarked for election-related costs driven up by the pandemic, through the federal CARES Act, though the Cuomo administration said that money had largely been spent. Mr. Cuomo has repeatedly pleaded for federal help for the state and its localities, though negotiations on additional coronavirus-related aid is stalled in Washington.
Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, said he had offered extra staff — including National Guard troops — to all local boards, often without response.
“It’s a person-power function, staffing function — that’s the main factor in running the election for them,” Mr. Cuomo said last week. “We have personnel that we can make available, but they have to tell us what they need and they have to be organized.”
But some election officials acknowledged that they were uncertain how much this election year would cost.
“I’ll be candid: I don’t think my finance department has figured out what we spent yet,” said Kristen Z. Stavisky, the Democratic Party’s commissioner of elections in Rockland County, northwest of the city, noting the “astronomical” cost of postage of thousands of applications and postage-paid return ballots. “The CARES grant could never cover everything that we’re paying for.”
Nicholas LaLota, the G.O.P. commissioner in Suffolk County on Long Island, echoed that, estimating that the county would incur about $2 million in expenses in this year’s election, including spending some $150,000 on things like hand sanitizer and extra pens to keep polling places clean.
An executive order from Mr. Cuomo also required the counties send “an informational mailer to every Suffolk household that has a voter in it,” something Mr. LaLota said cost $1 million alone in a county with more than one million registered voters.
“Ultimately, Suffolk County is going to have to pay a rather large bill,” Mr. LaLota said.
Dustin M. Czarny, the Democratic commissioner in Onondaga, said his county had already spent the $260,000 it received from the federal CARES Act, and had applied to the Center for Tech and Civic Life to “offset money that we’re already spending.”
The center — which is based in Chicago and has also been backed by Google — said in a statement that it was “still actively processing grant applications,” but had received about 40 from New York, part of some 1,100 nationwide.
Late last month, there was good news for Onondaga: It won $280,000 from the Zuckerberg-funded initiative, something county officials said would allow the temporary hiring of four additional employees, on top of the six the county had already hired for the sprint to November.
“It’s 12-hour days, 7 to 7, and we’ve pretty much told everyone they are working every Saturday until the election,” Mr. Czarny said. “And some Sundays, too.”