My testimony in front of the NYS Legislature Joint Elections Committee on the June 2020 Primary

Below is my submitted written Testimony for the joint NYS Senate & Assembly Standing Elections Committee Public Hearing for Elections in a Pandemic:  A review of the 2020 Primaries. Above is my appearance before the committee which mainly answers questions for the NYS Senators and Assemblypersons in attendance over Zoom.

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Testimony before the Joint Senate and Assembly Public Hearing

Senate Standing Committee on Elections

Senate Standing Committee on Local Government

Assembly Standing Committee on Election Law

Assembly Standing Committee on Local government

Hearing for Elections in a Pandemic:  A review of the 2020 Primaries

Tuesday August 11, 2020 10am

Dustin M. Czarny, NYSECA Democratic Caucus Chair

I would like to thank the NYS Assembly and Senate for holding this important hearing today and I would also like to thank Chairmen Assemblyman Charles Lavine and Senator Zellnor Myrie for the opportunity to testify.    My name is Dustin M. Czarny, Democratic Caucus Chair of the New York State Elections Commissioner Association.  I am also the Democratic Elections Commissioner for Onondaga County and have served in that role since 2013.  This hearing reviewing our performance during the 2020 June primary is vital for understanding what went well, what went wrong, and what can be improved leading into one of the more important elections in a generation.   The 2020 Presidential Election was bound to be a difficult election with highly contentious Presidential and congressional elections; however the COVID pandemic has complicated this crisis greatly.

During the spring, at the height of the pandemic, Boards of Elections had to deal with near daily changes in our election procedures.  In the span of 4 months we moved a Presidential Election from April to June, mailed out applications for absentees to nearly 5 million eligible voters, redesigned absentee envelopes and ballots to allow for postage paid returns, created phone, email, and portal application systems for absentees, cancelled most special elections, cancelled and then restarted a presidential primary, mailed and received nearly ten times the amount of absentee ballots, merged elections in voting systems not designed to run separate elections at the same time, and dealt with a mostly mail in election for the first time in New York State history.  

All of these challenges were done while Boards of Elections were dealing with the health crisis among their own employee’s as well civil unrest and heightened concerns for safety.  The petri dish of trouble certainly created obstacles that tested the resolve of not only the Boards of Elections but United States Postal Service and local county governments.  

As we look forward to the General Election there are many lessons from the primary that can help us deal with the oncoming avalanche of absentee ballots.  The legislature has already done some heavy lifting that will help resolve many of the problems with this primary.  They are:

·   S.8370B/A10830: will give voters notice of any deficiencies in their absentee ballot envelopes and an opportunity to fix them to ensure their votes can be counted.

·  S.8783A/A10807:  temporarily allows the processing of absentee ballot applications prior to 30 days before the election.

·   S.8799A/A10808:  temporarily provides that any absentee ballot shall be presumed to be timely even if it does not bear a dated postmark if such ballot was received and timestamped by the day after Election Day.

·  S.8015D/A10833: will define the term “illness” for the purposes of absentee voting to include instances where a voter is unable to appear personally at a polling place because there is a risk of contracting or spreading a disease-causing illness to the voter or to other members of the public.  

It must be noted as of yesterday these bills have not yet been delivered to the Governor’s desk for signing.  While it is assumed he will sign these pieces of legislation, The State Board of Elections and local boards have been frozen awaiting that signature.  I bring this up not to chastise however to stress that we are 83 days away from the election, 73 days from Early Voting.  If changes are to be made Boards of Elections need time to implement them.  Still undetermined is whether we will be mailing applications to every voter and paying for postage on absentee ballots.  Every day that goes by it becomes harder for Boards of Elections to prepare vendors and staff as well as adjust budgets.  

The delivery of ballots by the United States Post Office is major cause for concern.  The recent actions by the Trump Administration to make changes in delivery and the rhetoric from Washington is causing concern among the voters we are trying to protect by expanding absentee voting.  The lack of postmark is not a new problem.  NYSECA identified this problem several years ago and since 2016 we have been recommending the changes made last week to the receipt of absentee ballots due to the increasing lack of postmark.  These hyper technical recommendations can be overlooked by the legislature but we need added emphasis on them.  If this recommendation was made into law when proposed by NYSECA many of the issues and the federal lawsuit re-opening certification would not have been necessary.  While I understand the thoughts behind legislation to install ballot drop boxes, this may not be an option we can fully implement in 2020.  Instead I would ask New York to emphasize that ballot collection can happen at Early Voting and Election Day polling sites as well as Board of Election Offices.  In some communities we may want to authorize Town and City Hall offices to collect these ballots so they are deemed timely delivered as well.  It may be easier to adapt to already existing government services then design, implement, and buy secure drop boxes in the 83 days we have left.

After the Election we need a comprehensive look at the absentee ballot system.  As New York looks to implement No Excuse absentees by constitutional amendment in 2021 we should start the work on enabling legislation with thoughts towards what a primarily mail in system will look like in New York.  Allowing voters to supplant the absentee with an Early or Election Day vote is the primary reason results will be delayed in this year’s General Election.  With Electronic Poll Books we can devise a system where the first ballot delivered to the Board of Elections, whether by mail or in person, is the ballot that is counted and subsequent ballots set aside. This will allow real time processing and canvassing of absentees to be included in Election Night results and eliminate challenges to ballots.  We should also look at the delivery and application process themselves and make decisions on whether to just adopt no-excuse application process or mailing ballots to all registered voters.

Boards of Elections as well as local governments are facing draconian cuts due to the inaction of our federal government to provide direct aid to governments decimated by the COVID crisis.  While Boards of Elections have some autonomy over their spending host counties will have tremendous pressure to make cuts across the all of their agencies. The independence of our Boards of Elections is vital to maintaining a standard of access for voters across New York State.  I urge the New York Legislature to come up with legislatively backed minimum staffing requirements based on population for Boards of Elections.  Without proper staffing all functions of New York Elections will suffer.  The new political Calendar as well as Early Voting and expanded absentees require more work than ever for Boards of Elections.  They must have minimal protection to ensure proper functioning through the coming financial crisis.  

Finally New York must provide adequate funding for the State Board of Elections who will implement many of the regulations and changes the legislature has passed over the last two sessions and in years to come.  Their work is vital to supporting local boards and a strong adequately funded State Board of Elections is necessary for herding our 62 county boards and supporting all voters of New York State.

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