Editorial Board Memo: Lawmakers Need to Prioritize Safe Voting Amid COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond

NEW YORK, NY (05/28/2020) (readMedia)-- To: Editorial Boards

From: Common Cause/NY

Subject: Lawmakers Need to Prioritize Safe Voting Amid COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond

This week, New York lawmakers convened remotely for session for the first time in close to two months. As New Yorkers head into the primary election and then the general election this fall, lawmakers need to ensure our elections are safe and secure. We do not know what New York will look like by November and we cannot take any risks with our health and our right to vote.

While lawmakers are in session remotely they must prioritize voting.

Here's How:

Expand Absentee Voting

Currently, New York State has a very narrow set of reasons as to why voters can request an absentee ballot. The only way a voter can get a ballot is if s/he will be out of town on election day; unable to appear at the polls due to temporary or permanent illness or disability; is the primary caregiver of one or more individuals who are ill or physically disabled; a resident or patient of a Veterans Health Administration Hospital; or detained in jail awaiting Grand Jury action or confined in prison after conviction for an offense other than a felony.

Lawmakers should codify the expansion of absentee voting qualifications to include voters who are concerned over the spread of an illness during a state of emergency like COVID-19 that is contained in the Governor's Executive Order 202.15. Although the Executive Order establishes this modification,the Legislature must pass a bill to enshrine it into law and make it permanent. Senator Biaggi has introduced such a bill. The Governor's EO only extends to June but we will need the absentee voting option for the November elections as well, which Biaggi's bill covers.

This week, the State Senate passed Sen. Myrie's bill which will allow voters to request an absentee ballot electronically. This bill is a good start, however, it expires on December 31st, 2020. Voters need a long term solution, not a band-aid. Lawmakers must revise this bill immediately and take out the expiration clause.

Lawmakers not only must codify absentee voting, but also work out operational details, such as how voters will receive their ballots and send them back. This means developing a more robust ballot tracking process, including using the USPS Intelligent Mail barcodes on ballot return envelopes to allow verification of mailing date, irrespective of whether the envelope receives a dated postmark. BOEs must provide pre-paid postage for ballot return envelopes similar to California.

Once the BOEs receive the ballots, they must make every effort to ensure ballots are deemed valid. Since ballots will no longer be checked and verified in real time by poll workers in a polling location, New York will need to develop guidance if voters mark their ballot differently than the standard instructions. This will also require increased training for workers. Additionally, the BOE must develop clear and uniform policies on voter signature requirements: States with vote-by-mail employ and adequately train signature verification judges to determine accuracy. If voters forget to sign the return envelopes or election administrators have concerns regarding the authenticity of the signature, they should be notified and given ample time to correct these issues. New York then should also extend timelines to receive postmarked ballots. Like California, New York should allow ballots postmarked on Election Day and received no later than 3 days after Election Day to be counted. Senator Myrie has introduced bills which would implement these measures. Those bills should be passed into law.

Increase Early Voting to 18 days and Add More Poll Sites

Some voters will still need to cast a ballot in person. This is particularly true for voters with disabilities who require the use of ballot marking devices and those who need access to translation services. Even '100% vote-by-mail states' like Washington State still have in-person voting as an option during early voting and on Election Day.

Voters who request and fail to receive an absentee ballot -- because they didn't receive their ballot on time, the mail isn't functioning, or some other reason -- will also need an in-person option.

Currently, New York state allows voters nine days of early voting . Other states like Washington provide 18 days of early voting. New York needs to at least double early voting days as well as add more early voting poll sites to help distribute and reduce the density of each individual poll site to adhere to CDC guidelines.

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.