On March 29, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo postponed the planned presidential primary and special elections to June 23. The postponement was supported by both Republican and Democratic elections commissioners throughout New York State.
The move protected poll workers and voters from exposure to Covid-19 and the combination of both elections saved local governments much-needed funds. However, this order alone is not enough. New York must allow more of its citizens to vote from the safety of their homes during this crisis. The state Assembly and Senate should not end its session without fixing our absentee voting procedures in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis.
The New York State Election Commissioners Association called upon the governor and Legislature to expand absentee balloting when a state of emergency exists due to pandemic disease. Currently, New York State law requires an excuse to vote by absentee. Most common excuses are temporary or permanent illness/infirmity and being absent from the county you live in on Election Day.
There is a movement to alter the constitution of New York State to remove the excuse option but because of our arcane constitutional amendment process the earliest this can be done is in 2022. However, the Legislature could act today to alter the current absentee language to address the needs of voters now.
There are two bills in the New York State Senate that would meet this moment in history.
Senate Bill S8015A, sponsored by State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, would add threat of spreading communicable disease in a pandemic to the temporary illness section of NYS Election Law 8-400. This would assure voters that they have a right to choose this option to request an absentee.
Senate Bill S8130, sponsored by State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, would allow email receipt of absentee ballot applications. This could eliminate postage costs for the first step in the absentee ballot process and make it easier for boards of elections and voters to process the larger amount of absentees that can be expected this year.
It is imperative the Legislature pass these bills immediately so the measures can be in place for all elections in 2020. While it is hoped that the Covid-19 crisis will be better in June, many experts posit that some amount of social distancing will still be needed well past November.
At-risk citizens afraid of being infected by this deadly disease deserve the right to cast their vote safely without risking challenge from partisans hoping to win an election. Reducing the Election Day population by allowing a more accessible absentee process, as well as early voting measures passed last year, can help us protect workers, voters and the democratic process.