NY Electeds, Election Commissioners + CC/NY Call to Expand Absentee Voting + Consolidate Primary Amid COVID-19

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Today, State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, New York State Board of Elections Co-Chair Douglas A. Kellner, Onondaga County Democratic Elections Commissioner Dustin Czarny, and Susan Lerner of Common Cause/NY joined together to urge New York lawmakers to expand absentee voting in New York, as well as consolidate the April 28th presidential and village primaries and special elections, to the legislative and congressional primaries on June 23rd.

Earlier this week, Common Cause/NY released a white paper with recommendations for how New York elections can proceed during a pandemic, and the NYS Election Commissioners’ Association released a letter outlining their same position to expand absentee voting and consolidate the primaries. Both measures will give local boards of elections much needed time to adjust their plans for early voting and Election Day in November.

Currently, New York State has a very narrow set of reasons as to why voters can request an absentee ballot and vote absentee. Senator Biaggi has introduced a bill expanding those qualifications to include voters who are concerned over the spread of an illness during a state of emergency like COVID-19. The bill currently awaits a hearing.

Common Cause/NY supports expanding absentee voting as opposed to a full vote by mail system for New York State. Every state that has a successful vote by mail program depends on infrastructure like drop-off receptacles, in-person poll sites, and most importantly, accurate voter rolls to make sure every eligible voter receives a ballot in the mail. In-person poll sites are key so that anyone who doesn’t receive a ballot, for whatever reason, can still vote, as well as serving voters with disabilities and those needing language access. If New York scales up immediately to a 100% vote by mail system, we may disenfranchise thousands of people.

“New York is less than a month away from the start of early voting. 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. New Yorkers need not sacrifice our safety for the right to vote. We can work together to do both,” said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY.

“Health experts have urgently advised all Americans, especially the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, to practice social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak and stay home as much as possible. At the same time, New York is quickly approaching a presidential primary election. Voting at crowded polling places violates these critical safety measures. New Yorkers should never have to choose between safeguarding their health, the health of their communities, or fulfilling their civic duty. Nor should individuals in quarantine be denied their right to participate in our democracy. To ensure that every voter can safely partake in our elections for the foreseeable future, we must adapt to the circumstances of this global health crisis by expanding access to absentee ballots immediately. I am moved by New Yorkers’ willingness to make sacrifices to ensure the safety of their neighbors during this pandemic – but I will not allow voters to sacrifice their voice in our democracy when there is no need,” said State Senator Alessandra Biaggi (D-Bronx/Westchester).

“The legislation is a helpful confirmation of advice that many elections commissioners have already offered that voters can choose to vote by absentee ballot during the public health emergency in order to avoid the spread of the novel coronavirus,” said Douglas A. Kellner, Co-Chair of New York State Board of Elections.

“Voters should not have to choose between risking their health and exercising their right to participate in our Democracy. Allowing for expanded use of absentees will allow voters comfort and security in exercising their right to vote while reducing election day population and make it easier to enforce social distancing standards at poll sites,” said Dustin M. Czarny Democratic Caucus Chair NYS Elections Commissioner Association, Onondaga County Elections Commissioner (D).

“In light of the outbreak of COVID-19, and whereas New York now has the most coronavirus cases in the United States, the majority of New Yorkers who are ‘non-essential workers’ are staying inside to protect themselves and others from the virus,” said Assemblymember Niou. “There is no reason that people should choose to risk their health in an attempt to vote. I fully support my colleague Senator Alessandra Biaggi’s bill which will expand absentee voting to any voter and consolidate the April election with the June 23rd State Primary Election date. Expanding absentee voting is a critical stop gap measure that will allow New Yorkers to exercise their right to vote while staying safe from COVID-19.”

Background

Common Cause/NY’s recommendations for how to proceed with an election during COVD-19:

  • 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 accommodations 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.