Guaranteeing the Right to Vote in a COVID-infected New York

By Assemblyman Michael Blake

Gov. Cuomo recently expanded access to absentee balloting through a series of orders clarifyingthat the risk of spreading COVID-19 pandemic “illness” permits any June voter to vote by mail. Local Boards must mail all June voters an absentee ballot application with return-postage guaranteed for applications and ballots requested.

While these orders help safeguard civil rights, only 3.5% of New Yorkers voted absentee in 2018. Restrictive laws remain and some infrastructure to dramatically expand mail voting is not in place. However, there is an opportunity to smooth out rough edges for the moment we are in — a perpetual state of emergency creeping closer to pivotal 2020 elections.

Here are four ways to improve access and quality control over New York’s 58 partisan boards, with an anticipatory eye toward fall contests.

Provide local boards with an online request tool for mail ballots.

While some boards like ErieLivingston and New York City offer a simple, prominent online form inviting voters to request a mail ballot, counties like WestchesterDutchess and Rensselaer don’t mention these new options on their landing pages and require voters to download, print, sign, scan and email the form back without clear instructions.

Three weeks after voters were permitted to request ballots by email, Dutchess and Rensselaer don’t offer this option. Meanwhile, Suffolk and Nassau fall somewhere in between, advising voters of the new option but directing them to download a paper application.

Our goal isn’t to set an impossibly high standard, but to insist on a modern baseline to reduce dramatic disparities. The State Board should test and disseminate an online request tool and direct local boards to prominently display COVID-related voting options. Erie even provides a confirmation number—revolutionary in a state without ballot tracking.

Accept ballots postmarked on Election Day, and codify postage-paid return.

New York permits completed ballots to be hand-delivered on Election Day by someone other than the voter but requires mailed ballots to be postmarked the day prior. That’s confusing and unnecessary since New York absentees are still timely if the Board receives them seven days after an election.

A small but significant fix would count ballots postmarked on Election Day, improving uniformity and protecting rights. We should also codify postage-paid return for the future.

Allow housing authorities, nursing homes and large residential buildings to coordinate bulk ballot logistics, disability and language assistance.

New York already permits Boards of Election to coordinate with nursing homes and hospitals, where many similarly situated absentee voters reside. To facilitate expanded absentee voting, pending legislation could be modified to industrialize ballot delivery and return at larger residential facilities with centralized management.

This should include public housing, dense residential buildings, dorms, and gated communities. Facility leadership could opt in with the local Board to coordinate ballot logistics. Language- and disability-access can be tailored to resident needs while streamlined processing can reduce reliance on the USPS.

Count legitimate ballots whenever possible.

If administrators can determine a person is eligible and can discern the voter’s intent, the ballot must be presumed valid. Voters deserve due process to root out bad faith and resolve challenges before ballots are discounted.

Sadly, targeting absentee ballots in close contests is commonplace while due process is not. Absentee voters aren’t even informed when a ballot is discounted, and Boards are familiar with a list of dubious reasons to void absentees. This includes sealing an envelope with tape instead of saliva; failing to date the envelope despite timely Board receipt; where USPS imprints no postmark; or when a ballot contains stray marks. Harsh signature matching against old signatures is another pitfall.

Putting aside questionable expertise, the nature of comparing signatures invites discrimination. The legislature should prohibit “technical knockout” tricks. With expanded absentee voting, such tactics are intolerable.

Ahead of 2020 elections, voter access resiliency measures can protect our civil rights consistent with public health, but the time for government to safeguard both is now.
 
Blake represents parts of Concourse Village, Morrisania and other neighborhoods in the state Assembly. He is running for Congress in New York’s 15th District and is a vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee. Berg is an attorney and co-founder of the non-partisan VoteEarlyNY.