Westchester County’s Board of Legislators and Board of Elections held a joint meeting (Committee of the Whole) Wednesday, July 29, to discuss public complaints about voting procedures during the June 23 primaries.
Commissioners Reginald Lafayette (Democrat) and Douglas Colety (Republican) represented the board of elections (BOE), which is not under the county’s jurisdiction.
The boards reviewed a summary of more than 150 written complaints and 70 voiced during an online public input session Wednesday, July 8, and considered solutions for improving voting conditions, especially since general elections have a significantly higher turnout.
The July 8 session was held by the Election Information Gathering Task Force, established in early July. In addition, on July 13 the BOL Budget and Appropriations Committee met with election professionals and advocates to hear their experiences and suggestions.
Based on public input, the task force will develop action steps for Election Day (Nov. 3), which will be delivered to the legislators by Aug. 7.
The July 29 meeting focused on early, in-person, and absentee voting logistics; communication; poll sites and poll worker training.
The Westchester County website states that voters should have started receiving applications for absentee ballots beginning the week of May 18; completed applications were due no later than June 16. Early voting was scheduled from Saturday, June 13, through Sunday, June 21. On primary voting day, June 23, the 62 polling sites were open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
“This was not an easy task, and could be open to criticism,” Lafayette stated early in the joint meeting. “The staff did a great job, and we did a great job in getting people out to vote.” He cited the unprecedented circumstances of facilitating an election during a pandemic, and the impact COVID-19 had on the process; for example, the loss of customary poll workers, whose average age he estimated at 65 to 71.
The issue of too few polling sites became a chicken-or-egg situation. Lafayette maintained there weren’t enough poll workers for more sites. However, some voters in Yonkers and Rye, among other places, testified they volunteered but were informed by the BOE that they weren’t needed. Legislator Catherine Parker read out a message from Shari Ascher, community liaison to the county executive’s office, stating that she and her husband were rejected.
Lafayette replied that some communities had enough workers, but also said, “We had to consolidate sites because we didn’t have the workers.”
“Which was it — not enough polling places or not enough workers?” Parker challenged.
She pointed out that Mamaroneck had just one site, where voters waited for hours, and voting finished at 1 a.m.
The COVID-19 virus rendered many polling places off limits; some institutions, such as senior centers, don’t want the public in their facilities. The BOE is open to site recommendations, and the commissioners affirmed that in November, 262 sites will be open; currently 189 are confirmed. The primary had 17 early voting sites; November’s election will have 21.
The BOE wants 400 new ICE (ImageCast Evolution) voting machines; according to Lafayette, they can’t be hacked. But since the county still owns other machines, Majority Whip Christopher Johnson queried, “The law allows use of two different kinds of machines. Why didn’t you use both, not just ICE machines?”
Lafayette and Colety didn’t comment on whether both types of machines would be used. On July 30, they brought an ICE machine and technicians to meet with the BOL and demonstrate how the new machines work.
Timeliness of mailing absentee ballot applications, counting returned ballots, and early voting directions ruffled feathers. Colety explained why some ballots weren’t counted. “One thousand were not postmarked properly; 1,600 weren’t valid — they were missing a signature, had the wrong envelope, etc.”
The BOE thinks early rather than absentee voting is better, but Parker disagreed. “It’s the safest way to cast a ballot, without having contact with anybody. It’s a health issue… absentee ballot is the type of voting that we need to push out to the electorate for their health, for public safety as the No. 1 priority.”
Legislators also addressed feedback about last-minute applications and incorrect postcards notifying voters about polling places. Williams said she’d received calls from constituents confused about where to vote. The commissioners did not provide a date on which the absentee ballot applications will be sent.
Legislator Nancy Barr avowed, “Communication is the No. 1 issue that could make the November elections better. Don’t send out information one week before elections. We need to have communication earlier for early voting to be successful.”
The legislators also want more social media use, and Spanish communications; Colety favors a voter education TV campaign. Other suggestions included training videos for poll workers, and interactive videos on filling out ballots and using voting machines. Legislator Lyndon Williams proposed using the County Center Jumbotron for education.
On July 27, County Executive George Latimer issued a four-point plan to improve November’s voting conditions, offering help. He promised that by Aug. 15, all county employees would be invited to become poll inspectors, and the county would facilitate communications with the BOE regarding training.
Latimer’s office reached out to school superintendents and municipal officials and established a team to review recent polling sites for compliance with current COVID-19 regulations, seek new sites, and provide contacts to the BOE.
He will commit funds for temporary staff to help the BOE with mass mailings. Latimer thinks that, with careful adherence to requirements, most of those expenses would be covered by funds the county received from the federal CARES Act, separate from funding that went to the BOE.
“We are committed to this assistance as a positive way to accomplish the agreed-upon end goal of conducting the smoothest possible Election Day 2020,” his communication stated. “Only the unique circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic warrant our direct involvement and assistance in this matter. We are ready to implement these actions immediately.”
The July 29 meeting is archived online at www.westchesterlegislators.com.