Democracy Doesn’t Pause: Common Cause/NY on How Elections Can Proceed During COVID-19

Issues white paper w/recommendations including moving primaries to June and expanding absentee voting

NEW YORK, NY — Amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, many lawmakers, including those in New York, have floated the idea of an entirely vote by mail system: where all active registered voters automatically receive a ballot in the mail and can choose to vote by mail if desired. In response, Common Cause/NY released a white paper today with recommendations on how New York elections can proceed during a pandemic, including consolidating the April 28th presidential primary to the June 23rd legislative and congressional primary, and expanding absentee voting without scaling up immediately to a 100% vote by mail system.

Earlier today, Common Cause New York, Colorado Common Cause, and California Common Cause joined together on a press conference call to discuss how elections can proceed in New York State amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Listen to the call HERE.

“During uncertain times democracy does not pause; it evolves. New York lawmakers can put the heath of voters and our election integrity first by consolidating our presidential primary from April to June and expanding absentee voting. Launching too quickly into an entire vote by mail system, without maintaining alternatives like in-person poll sites, runs the risk of disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of voters,” said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY.

Strictly vote by mail, without in-person sites, is a reach for New York since a successful program is dependent on the accuracy of the voter file. Common Cause/NY does not believe that the 58 Boards of Election (BOEs) have maintained up-to-date voter rolls. For example, in 2016, thousands of active Democratic voters were improperly moved to inactive status. If New York hastily institutes a vote by mail system, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers may never receive a ballot. Even in full vote by mail states, there remain in-person options for voters who require language assistance or voters with disabilities who require ballot marking devices.

Common Cause/NY’s recommendations:

  • The April 28th presidential primary, and all other elections scheduled for that date, should be consolidated to the June 23rd primary given the escalating spread of the virus around the state. This will give local boards of elections much needed time to adjust their plans for early voting and election day.
  • A uniform and measured expansion of the requirements to vote absentee extending the provisions of the Governor’s Executive Order to make it easier for voters to request a ballot.
    • The process of requesting an absentee ballot requires voters to provide a mailing address where the ballot should be sent. This would dramatically increase the likelihood of a voter receiving their requested ballot. This would also provide BOEs an opportunity to update their voter file with the correct address.
  • Local boards of elections must immediately prepare to scale up for the expansion of absentee voting, which means:
    • developing a more robust ballot tracking process.
    • providing pre-paid postage for return envelopes.
    • designating an abundance of secure drop box locations that aren’t just USPS mailboxes.
    • The state must allocate additional funds to deal with additional costs associated with printing, instituting new infrastructure, voter outreach and education, equipment maintenance, translation services, and staff training.
  • Maintain accomodations for in-person early voting and election day voting. For some voters, absentee voting is not feasible. This is particularly true for disabled voters who require the use of ballot marking devices such as those who are vision impaired, or have a disability or condition that would make it difficult or impossible to mark a ballot by hand as well as those who need access to translation services. Even ‘100% vote by mail states’ like Washington still have in-person voting as an option during early voting and on election day.
  • Any in-person voting must be conducted in such a manner that voters, poll workers, and election administrators are kept safe and healthy by following the most recent CDC sanitary and mass gathering protocols. We recognize there may come a point when in-person voting must be significantly modified due to COVID-19.