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Coronavirus spurs push to postpone NY's presidential primary and allow more mail-in voting

Karen DeWitt

Several New York state lawmakers and a co-chair of the state Board of Elections are pressing for New York to expand its absentee voting laws to allow for more mail-in balloting and to postpone the April 28 presidential primary until late June.  

New York has strict rules, outlined in the state’s constitution, about who can request an absentee ballot. The person either must be ill or out of the county they live in on Election Day. 

A bill sponsored in the Senate by Alessandra Biaggi, a Bronx Democrat, would expand the reasons to vote by mail to include a concern over fearing the spread of an illness during a state of emergency, as is now the case with COVID-19.

Biaggi, speaking during an online news conference, said New Yorkers are willingly agreeing to orders to stay home, but they should not have to sacrifice their right to vote. 

“Any at-risk individuals should be rightfully wary of voting in person at crowded polling places,” Biaggi said. “They should not have to choose between safeguarding their health and fulfilling their civic duty.”  

The bill also applies to people under quarantine.  

The measure is backed by Douglas Kellner, the Democratic co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections. He believes there is precedent for bending the rules for absentee balloting. He said it occurred after 9/11, and no one challenged the changes in court.

But he said having a new law in place dealing with concerns over the coronavirus would help.

“It would certainly help to immunize those rulings against any challenges in court later on,” Kellner said. 

There is currently an effort underway in the Legislature to amend the state’s constitution to essentially allow mail-in voting for any reason. But it’s a lengthy process, requiring the approval of two consecutively elected Legislatures and a vote by the public. It could not be completed before November 2021.  

A bill in the Assembly sponsored by Joe Lentol, a Democrat from Brooklyn, would go further than Biaggi’s bill and mandate mail-in voting for the April 28 presidential primary. 

Dustin Czarny, who is an Onondaga County elections commissioner and chair of the New York State Elections Commissioners Association’s Democratic caucus, said it’s not feasible right now to switch exclusively to mail-in voting. 

“Hundreds of thousands of people are inactive on the voter rolls right now, that means we don’t have proper addresses for them,” said Czarny.  

The lawmakers and elections officials, along with good-government groups Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, among others, are also seeking to postpone the April 28 presidential primary and hold it on June 23 instead. That date is already set for state and congressional primary elections. 

Under the rules of the Democratic National Committee, states must hold their presidential primaries by June 2 or risk losing some of their delegates at the national convention. Biaggi said she believes the DNC will change those rules. She said it would be a “very bad PR move” for the DNC to punish New York for postponing a primary at a time when the virus is expected to peak in New York.  

Biaggi and the others said they hope the Legislature can expand absentee voting when lawmakers convene next week, either remotely or in person at the Capitol. They said they may also need the rules for the November elections if the coronavirus is still a threat.