2020 has already seen massive changes to the political landscape of New York without one election actually being held. The COVID crisis has made us think on the fly about how to hold elections, delay elections, and in some cases whether to hold them at all. The crisis has also shined a light on the inadequacies of our New York Electoral system and how hard it is to change it. We muse that this crisis is going to change things in our society and in terms of elections I hope it changes the assumptions about how easy it is to run them and people realize that we can’t put off electoral reform year after year.
This year the Covid Crisis has already forced us to move our April 28th Presidential Primary and Special elections to June 23rd, postpone the March 18th Village elections and May 19th School elections to a date yet to be determined, redesign the absentee ballot procedures for June, and rethink where we can hold elections. Now comes word this week that the special elections scheduled for June 23rd are cancelled, and it is possible the Presidential primary will be cancelled after a meeting of the State Board tomorrow.
It is rightful to be concerned about these changes and the effect it will have on the New York electoral system. In light of our national assault on Democracy through gerrymandering and restrictive voting regulations used to give partisan advantage, these changes can be seen as worrisome signs. Fears about what this could mean for the November elections are only natural.
However we only need to look at the Wisconsin primary on April 7th to see what happens when officials ignore the dangers and push through with elections without adjusting. The Wisconsin GOP over ruled the Governor who wanted to delay the election in hopes of using the Pandemic to suppress turnout and win a WI Supreme Court seat. They also went to the Supreme Court to limit absentee voting. Voters had to stand in long lines as polling places were closed due to lack of inspectors. The Gambit didn’t work. Voters turned out and the results at the ballot box, with the Democrat winning by substantial numbers, should be seen as a warning to those who try to limit democracy. At what cost though. BY last count dozens of new COVID infections have been traced to the April 7th elections.
New York was correct in delaying elections and is further doing the right thing by allowing an expanded absentee balloting. The New York Constitution does not allow straight vote by mail, so Governor Cuomo is doing the next best thing. He has by executive order allowed anyone to apply for an absentee by using the “temporary illness” excuse because of the COVID crisis. He further made it easier to apply by allowing for email applications. Now on Friday he announced that Board of Elections must mail an application to every voter with postage paid returns. You still need to apply, a ballot won’t, and can’t, be automatically mailed. And if you don’t want to wait, in Onondaga County you can go to onvote.net and apply now. Soon a phone option will be launched as well.
Activists and some voters will take issue with the cancellation of state and local special elections and the possible elimination of the Presidential Primary. Certainly cancelling elections is a concern and it would be reflexive to just say we should hold these elections anyway. Unfortunately the answer is, as usual, not that simple. The Special Election, Presidential Primary, and local primaries are three different elections under NYS law. This means separate ballots and separate check ins for each election. This would double the amount of inspectors and possibly triple the amount of mailing costs for local boards. Also there could be voter confusion both at home and at the polling place by voters and inspectors alike. Part of the OVID crisis has prevented Boards from holding training of inspectors and we would be faced with doing this on the fly on Election Day itself. This confusion in and of itself could be seen as a form of vote suppression.
Normally I would say damn the costs and confusion and give a lecture on the need for investment in Democracy. However the Specials and Presidential Primary have devolved into what can best be described as inconsequential elections. The winners of the special elections would not take office now until July, traditionally the session for the New York legislature ends in June. Holding the already scheduled elections in November will mean a representative will be in place for the start of session next year. There are also staff in all of these seats to address constituent concerns and those staff continue. Not ideal, but definitely not something that is earth shattering.
The Presidential Primary may come to an end as well on Monday. State Board Commissioners were given the right to determine whether a candidacy was active and drop them off the ballot. At the time this was passed there were scheduled to have 11 candidates on the NY Primary ballot, 9 of them had already dropped out of the race and endorsed another candidate. The other 2, Biden and Sanders, were publicly giving every indication they would stay on well past June. This was a way to simplify the ballot for voters and make it easier for Boards of Elections. However now Bernie Sanders has also dropped out of the race and endorsed Biden. So now the State Board Commissioners could remove him from the ballot ending the primary.
Sanders supporters will point to Sanders wish that his name remain on the ballot so he can rack up delegates for the party convention. The question remains does the State of New York have a vested interest in spending public dollars on a party squabble? I am an advocate of primaries over caucuses because I believe the State of New York has a vested interest in determining the candidate that appears on the General Election Ballot is truly the representative of the citizens’ wishes. However that is not at question here. Keeping the Presidential Primary will double the amount of absentee costs for every county, and close to 1/3 of the counties will have to open up polling places on Election Day (when they otherwise wouldn’t have to).. It may be better to allow the Biden and Sanders camps along with the New York State Democratic Party make alternate plans on delegate selection.
Onondaga County would have to open up anyway in June so I take no personal position, but simple solutions on both sides of this question overlook the complexities involved. These complexities are made more problematic by New York’s still antiquated election laws. So much progress was made last year but many things like Automatic Voter Registration, absentee reform, ballot access, and minor election law changes were left on the table. When the legislative session comes resumes voting reforms should once again take center stage so that when the next crisis hits our Democracy can be more nimble and put the needs of the voters forward. We have a great deal of work to get to a more accessible modern voting system. Hopefully we will learn from these tribulations and build a better New York together.
NYS Elections Commissioner Association Democratic Caucus Chair
Onondaga County Elections Commissioner (D)