Last week Speaker Carl Heastie and Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins announced plans to return to legislative session after Memorial Day weekend. New York Legislative session is set to end in just a few weeks, but almost two months of session was lost due to the COVID-19 crisis. I am sharing with you today my letter to lawmakers on how they can use their final weeks of session to strengthen our electoral system during the current pandemic crisis and beyond.
As the 2020 legislative session restarts this week I urge the legislature to turn its attention to shoring up our electoral system. The current health crisis has brought havoc and uncertainty throughout our great state. The 62 Boards of Elections throughout the state have worked diligently to deal with the myriad of changes thrown our way. Over the last two months we have faced changes in designating petitions, postponed, cancelled and combined elections, and massive increases in absentee ballot access and use.
Boards of Elections have worked diligently through this crisis to keep up with these changes and prepare to hold statewide primaries on June 23rd. Holding an election in the middle of a pandemic would be challenging enough. We have done so with little state and federal funding and budget shortfalls from our host counties as well.
During this crisis Governor Cuomo has issued a variety of executive orders to address the immediate crisis. These executive orders have expanded absentee access for voters in an attempt to deal with the threat of COVID-19. These executive orders were necessary and served the voters for the June 23rd primary. The executive orders for the most part expire after the June 23rd primary. I urge the legislature to use this session to codify many of these executive orders so voters can enjoy these and enact long awaited reforms to strengthen election administration for years into the future.
Protect and expand absentee voting
For the June primary Governor Cuomo has extended absentee ballot options. This includes clarifying the risk of spread of COVID-19 as an acceptable excuse allowing for email and phone applications, a mailer to every eligible voter with an absentee application and postage paid return envelopes, and postage paid return envelopes on absentees. There is no reason to believe the threat of COVID-19 will not extend into the November General Election as well. There are several bills the legislature could pass that will
The legislature should pass S8015B (Biaggi) which will permanently allow voters during a state of emergency such as risk of pandemic spread of disease to use the temporary illness excuse to request an absentee ballot. With the risk of a fall outbreak of COVID-19 or another calamity that we have yet to imagine, voters should be allowed in the case of a natural state of emergency to safely vote from their homes.
The legislature should pass S8130B (Myrie) allowing for applications for absentee ballots to be received by email. It also moves the postmark date to receive absentee ballots to Election Day. Thousands of New Yorkers were able to request ballots by email this June primary and it modernizes our application system as well as reduces the potential postage cost for both voters and Boards of Elections.
The legislature should pass S8368 (Myrie) safeguarding the rights of absentee voters by eliminating challenges for when the clear intention of the voter is known. This will discourage frivolous challenges while giving piece of mind to the voters their ballots will count.
While much of this added expense for the primary is being covered with the Federal CARES grant, that funding would likely run out. If the legislature wishes to extend a mailer to fall voters funding sources need to be identified from either State or Federal funding to keep the burden away from host counties.
Make Election Administration simpler and protect the independence of Election Boards
The Boards of Elections are the backbone of our NY electoral system. The COVID crisis has created long term issues with polling places, inspector recruitment, and budgetary issues.
The legislature should pass A815A (Stirpe)/S2876 (May) making General Election day a non-Student Attendance Day. Boards of Elections depend on schools as polling places in many communities where no suitable HAVA accessible building is available. With the COVID crisis many private polling sites are refusing entry and senior and nursing facilities are off limits. This will further increase the dependence on public structures such as schools. Making sure students are not in attendance will alleviate concerns regarding safety and the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
The legislature should pass A6093 (Cusick)/S546 (Akshar) allowing for Election Districts populations to increase to two thousand residents. Modern technology such as Electronic Poll Books and our scanner machines have increased efficiency since the days of lever machines. By increasing election district size we can staff our polling places with less election inspectors. This is especially needed to pass this year to be in place for redistricting in 2021.
Further legislative efforts should be made to standardize Elections Commissioner terms to 4 years and protect their boards from undue cuts to personnel and resources. Boards of Elections are often the least resourced county department and with all the election changes over the last few years their limited resources are barely enough to administer elections and safeguard the vote. Standardizing Election Commissioners to a 4 year term will ensure the independence a Commissioner needs while allowing them to serve a full election cycle we experience in NY between Presidential elections.
Make it easier to register to vote and protect voter interests
The legislature should fulfill its promise from last session and pass Automatic Voter Registration (S6457B) in some form before the end of this session. New York currently has 1.2 million voters in “inactive” status, mostly due to incomplete or inaccurate residential address issues. AVR will address this issue as well as reducing New York’s unregistered adult population, which is one of the worst in the nation. This reform will also save money at Boards of Elections by making the voter rolls more accurate reducing wasted printing and postage from failed registrations. Time is of the essence as the State Board of Elections will be starting the process for designing an online voter registration system later this year. AVR should be a part of that project and if it waits until another session New York would waste time and money. There are several competing versions of AVR and the legislation and the legislature should look to implement even a scaled down version this session so the State Board of Elections can start work on it this winter.
Finally the New York State Senate started work on the New York Voting Rights Act (S7528) shortly before the start of the COVID crisis. Work on this intriguing piece of legislation should continue. The rights of voters and protection against gerrymandering and disenfranchisement is an idea that New York should be on the vanguard of. If this legislation is not ready for passage this year it should be part of the new tradition of first day voting legislation the New York Legislature has now become known for in 2021 along with the constitutional amendments of No Excuse Absentee and Same Day Registration.
I wish you and your staff a safe and productive end of session. I am available for Zoom and/or telephone conference with you or your legislative staff as you work toward finalizing legislation. Please don’t hesitate to call at any time.
Dustin M. Czarny
NYS Elections Commissioner Association
Democratic Caucus Chair
Commissioner (D), Onondaga County Elections Board