Were it not for the pandemic, this presidential election season would probably be missing one of its most hotly debated issues: absentee ballots. In theory they’re the preferred means of voting amid fears of contagion at crowded polling places; in practice, there have been serious questions about whether the process can work.
To address this concern, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Tuesday, Sept. 8 he will issue an executive order to allow completed absentee ballots to be returned to contactless drop boxes or with dedicated lines at county Board of Elections’ offices and early voting sites, making it possible to avoid post office delays and the need for a stamp.
Registered voters can cast their ballots early in person, vote absentee, or vote in person on Election Day, and, under the new executive order, Boards of Elections must have plans to safely receive the anticipated additional volume of absentee ballots through in-person return.
For the November general election, voters must apply for an absentee ballot which can be downloaded from the internet at https://www.elections.ny.gov/VotingAbsentee.html#_blank and return it to the Westchester County Board of Elections, postmarked by Oct. 9. Upon receipt of the application the Board of Elections will send the qualified voter a uniquely identified absentee ballot by mail. Then the voter must depend on the U.S. Postal Service to get the filled-in ballot to its destination in time to be counted, or must go in person to drop the ballot off at an early voting site or at the Board of Elections.
The state is also relaxing other rules to encourage use of mail-in ballots. On Aug. 20, Cuomo signed a measure into law making fears of the coronavirus a valid reason for requesting an absentee ballot. The law made absentee ballots available immediately, and removed the prior deadline of 30 days before an election for requesting an absentee ballot.
All absentee ballots postmarked on or before Election Day, Nov. 3, must be counted if received by Nov. 10. Absentee ballots received by the Board of Elections without a postmark by the day after the election will also be counted.
“Voting is a civil right; some voters will prefer to deliver their ballot in person rather than relying on the USPS to ensure their ballot is counted,” New York State Assemblyperson Amy Paulin told the Inquirer Sept. 9. “The governor’s requiring that either a secure ballot box or a dedicated line to minimize delays and promote contactless voting will make that option a safe and healthy one.”
While states including New Jersey and Connecticut already had the drop box option, in New York state, prior to the governor’s executive order, cities, towns and villages did not have the authority to receive voted absentee ballot envelopes.
“We went to the governor with this idea and we appreciate that he heard our concerns and solutions,” said Westchester County Executive George Latimer in a statement released Sept. 8. “As we deal with the day-to-day realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a commonsense solution for those who cannot vote in person.”
Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner had sent requests to the New York State Board of Elections to allow for a secure ballot collection box outside Greenburgh Town Hall.
The only other way to increase the number of drop-off sites would be by increasing early voting sites. Currently, the authority to designate and set up early voting sites, where absentee ballots may be dropped off, rests with the Westchester Board of Elections.
State legislators had introduced Assembly Bill A10942 just days after newly appointed U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy insisted in a hearing before the House of Representatives on Aug. 21 that the austerity measures he had imposed, which caused slowdowns in mail service across the U.S., would not affect the post office’s ability to accommodate an onslaught of absentee ballots in November. DeJoy defended his elimination of hundreds of postal sorting machines and said he had no plans to restore them. Democratic lawmakers charged that the actions of DeJoy, a Republican Party donor, would undermine the nation’s confidence in the results of the election since there would be no way to find out if an individual’s vote had been received in time to be counted.
During the June primary, more than 21 percent of mail-in ballots were not counted in New York City due to issues related to the mail-in process, such as lack of a timely postmark or late arrival.
And yet there remains a stumbling block: receiving an absentee ballot in the first place. Barry Graubart of Irvington downloaded applications for absentee ballots for himself, his wife and his college-age daughter last month. They printed them out and filled them in, and Graubart placed all three applications into one envelope addressed to the Westchester Board of Elections at 25 Quarropas St. in White Plains. “I called last year and asked if I could submit multiple applications in a single envelope, and they said ‘OK,’” Graubart said.
Two weeks later, the envelope with the applications in it was returned, with a sticker stating “return to sender, insufficient address” across the front. “It made no sense at all to me,” he said. “It’s baffling to me.”
He put the applications in a new envelope, readdressed it to the Board of Elections, and sent it back on its way. “I’m just hoping it’s enough,” he said. “All you want is if you put something in the mail, it gets delivered.”
— with reporting by Valerie Abrahams