Sunday Thoughts: What to expect for the June elections and changes in absentee voting in New York
This week Governor Cuomo made more changes to Election Law for the June 23rd primary elections. The last two months have been a whirlwind for election officials as we have tried to chart a path forward during the COVID-19 health crisis. I think it is helpful to review the major changes that have happened:
· Designating petition time period was cut from 38 days to 25 days the amount of signatures needed to get on the ballot reduced to 30% of original amount.
· Independent nominating petitions was suspended and not yet rescheduled
· Opportunity to Ballot petitions were cancelled in their entirety for the 2020
· The Presidential primaries and special elections first were postponed to June 23rd then cancelled in its entirety (though the presidential cancellation is now part of two lawsuits).
· Village elections originally scheduled in March and June are now rescheduled for September 15th.
· Caucus for Town elections postponed until at least June 1 or later.
· School elections moved from May 19th to June 9th and mandated to be all mail balloting.
· Applications for absentee ballots were expanded to allow for temporary illness for the COVID-19 crisis making them near universally available for the June 23rd primary.
· All Applications on file for the now cancelled April elections will carry forward to the June 23rd elections if applicable.
· Applications can now be made by email and phone as opposed to just mail and in person in the past.
· Applications will now be mailed to every active and inactive voter in the state with postage paid return envelopes that are eligible to vote in the June 23rd primaries.
· Once an absentee application is received the local Board of Election will send an absentee ballot with a postage paid return envelope as well.
· Boards of Elections will be mandated to have Ballot Marking Devices (BMD) at their facilities to allow for those that have disabilities to participate in the absentee ballot program.
That is a lot of changes for one year, let alone the last 45 days. The most immediately noticeable is the cancellation of the Primary and special elections the voters. The Presidential Primary is the subject of two different lawsuits and while it is in litigation I will not be commenting on those until the cases are resolved. However the changes with perhaps the most long term consequences are the ones to absentee balloting. Activists and election officials have been calling for reforms to this part of election law for a while.
Some though still wonder why New York, like other states, have not moved to all mail balloting for all elections. Unlike other states we have a prohibition against this in our NYS constitution. The constitution states you need a reason to vote absentee. This means you must declare that reason in the form of a request. In fact New York is looking to change this through our constitutional amendment process. When Democrats took over the New York State legislature in January of 2019 one of the first laws they passed was a constitutional amendment change to allow for “No Excuse” voting which could potentially lead to mail in balloting. Unfortunately the amendment process for the NYS constitution is long and arduous. A bill must be passed by two differently elected legislatures and then voted on by the entire state. The earliest this can be accomplished is in 2021.
With these restrictions in place it was impossible for New York to enact an all-mail balloting process for this year’s elections. In fact even the mere mention of it was enough for the State GOP chair to call emergency meetings and threaten lawsuits. As we see the nationwide GOP tactic has been to oppose every election reform that expands the ballot to allow for increase participation. With an election less than two months away the best Governor Cuomo could do is expand the absentee process. It should be noted that the School elections now scheduled for June 9th is being mandated to pull off all mail balloting. The reason this can happen is that School districts run their elections and are not subject to the restrictions in the NYS constitution.
The absentee expansion for June will start this week. By the end of the week the first wave of absentee ballots will start to be placed in the mail. This will go to military and federal voters and any applications on file and processed by County Boards of Elections. Also this week or early next voters who have not yet applied will receive an application in the mail with a postage paid return envelope. If you don’t receive either an application or absentee ballot in the mail by May 18th you should contact your Board of Elections to request one. The application can be emailed, faxed, or returned via US mail. Important to note if you email the application back it can’t be used for the November election, only the June primary.
Applications must be postmarked by June 16th to guarantee the Board of Election will mail out a ballot to you. However you should not wait to send your application in. Boards need to process your application and mail out a ballot to you. Once you get the ballot you need to postmark your ballot by June 22nd or you can drop it off at your local Board of Elections. It can also be dropped off at a polling site on Election Day June 23rd. Again do not wait. Fill out your ballot, mail it in right away.
There will be Election Day voting on June 23rd and Early Voting on June 18th. If you decide you want to vote in person you can do so. Boards of Election do not canvass absentee ballots until after Election Day. We will pull voter history for voters who vote on Election Day and remove your absentee ballot from the canvass. The increase in absentees may mean that we won’t know who won races until 7 to 14 days after Election Day. It will be important for media, candidates, and voters to be aware of this change.
Lastly it is important to remember these changes are only in effect for the June 23rd primary. The legislature should act to codify these changes for the November primary as well. We can evaluate how these changes work to increase turnout and which of these changes needs tweaks before the fall elections. These changes will help voters vote safely for the June 23rd elections but there is no reason to believe the COVID crisis will abate in the fall. We should look to use these changes to increase voter access for June and November.