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NY voters have more options to vote on June 23, but advocates call for more safeguards

WAMC file photo

Many eligible voters for New York’s June 23 primary are receiving applications for absentee ballots in the mail, as the state tries to make it easier for people to avoid physically going to the polls during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, voting rights advocates say more needs to be done.

Under an executive order signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, voters eligible to cast ballots in the Democratic presidential primary and several congressional and state legislative primaries will be mailed applications for absentee ballots. If they're concerned about voting in person during the pandemic, they can send in the application, postage-paid, and receive an absentee ballot and cast their vote that way.


“I don’t think it’s a good idea to go have people go standing on line to vote,” Cuomo said earlier in the month. “You shouldn’t say to a person, ‘If you want to exercise your civic duty, you have to endanger your health and possibly endanger others.’”


The state’s constitution places strict limits on reasons that voters can cast mail-in ballots, so the applications require voters to check a box stating that they want the absentee ballot because of “temporary illness relating to COVID-19 as allowed under the Governor’s Executive Order.” A letter explaining the executive order is included in the packet.


The Legislature is in the process of changing the constitution to make it easier to vote by mail, but that process requires the approval of two consecutively elected state Legislatures and approval by voters statewide. The earliest that the new system could be in place is 2022.


In the meantime, advocates, including the League of Women Voters’ Jennifer Wilson, say lawmakers can enact several measures to make the current system work better.


Wilson, whose group is part of the Let New York Vote coalition, said she’s pleased that one of the measures was approved by the Senate and Assembly this week. It would do away with the requirement that applicants for absentee ballots have to physically sign the application and can instead do so electronically.


“So that you can request by internet, you can request by email, or request by any electronic means without needing a signature,” Wilson said.


The measure enables voters to also go to the Board of Elections website and sign up for an absentee ballot.


The coalition also wants to see the absentee ballot option in place for the primary extended to the November elections, but the measure was not taken up.


New York has a long history of legal challenges to absentee ballots in very close elections, and votes are sometimes invalidated for seemingly trivial reasons, including taping but not licking the envelope, using the wrong color ink or marking outside of the lines.


Until now, absentee votes have represented about 4% of the total vote. Wilson doesn’t want to see ballots invalidated on a larger scale when more people take the mail-in option, as is expected in the primary.


“Making sure that they’re not going to get thrown out for any stupid infraction,” Wilson said.


Susan Lerner is with Common Cause, which is also part of the coalition. She said the practice of invalidating absentee ballots on technicalities is even more egregious now.


“It’s particularly obnoxious if we are in the middle of a pandemic and we are expecting many more people to vote absentee,” Lerner said. “We believe that the Legislature should clarify the basis on which you can challenge an absentee ballot, and eliminate these really kind of frivolous objections.”


Polls will still be open on primary day, so voters who prefer can still go in person. Specific social distancing rules have not yet been set. Voters also have the option to vote early. Polls will be open nine days prior to primary day.


Lerner said voters will have more options than ever this time.


“We will have three ways to vote this June,” Lerner said. “And that’s a very positive development.”

Advocates had hoped the Legislature would double the time frame for early voting, to 18 days, but the measure was not taken up in this week’s session. Lawmakers are not expected to return to the Capitol until July.


The League of Women Voters has information on all of the changes to voting on its website, as well as a guide to the candidates for primary elections. Common Cause also has information.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.