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New York Responds to COVID-19, Allowing “No Excuse” Voting by Mail

Posted by NYPIRG on April 13, 2020 at 8:20 am
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As the pandemic rages, the impact it is having on all aspects of our lives becomes clearer.  Take for example, voting.  We saw the stunning scenes in Wisconsin where partisan differences blocked a voting-by-mail reform that would have allowed Wisconsin residents to avoid the risk of contagion at polling sites.

Partisan differences – in which Republicans blocked a last minute move by the Democratic Governor to allow mail-in voting – put the health of a political party ahead of the health of voters.  Moreover, as election day poll watchers dropped out of participation – to protect their own health – fewer polling sites could be opened.  The result was that the nation was stunned to see long lines of voters in Democrat-heavy Milwaukee wearing face masks as they waited – for hours in some cases – to cast their ballots.  In 2020 it shouldn’t take an act of courage to vote in the United States.

Just as the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China in December should have been a call to act to prepare the nation’s public health system, the debacle in Wisconsin should be a wakeup call that the pandemic poses a threat to American democracy. 

Yet, as the nation has learned about the Trump Administration, those calls are being ignored.  In fact, the President has taken to his twitter account to attack mail-in voting calling it corrupt – a charge that is a lie.

Mail-in voting is not new to America.  Some states and localities have allowed mail-in voting now for years.  Oregon, for example, put in place direct mail voting in 1998.

Five states currently conduct all elections entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah.  At least 21 other states have laws that allow certain smaller elections, such as school board contests, to be conducted by mail.  For these elections, all registered voters receive a ballot in the mail.  The voter marks the ballot, puts it in a secrecy envelope or sleeve and then into a separate mailing envelope, signs an affidavit on the exterior of the mailing envelope, and returns the package via mail or by dropping it off.

While mail-in voting means that every registered voter receives a ballot by mail, this does not preclude in-person voting opportunities on and/or before Election Day.  For example, despite the fact that all registered voters in Colorado are mailed a ballot, voters can choose to cast a ballot at an in-person vote center during the early voting period or on Election Day (or drop off, or mail, their ballot back).

As a result of these experiments, it is clear that there are some advantages and disadvantages to mail in voting.  For example, it is clear that there is an increase in voter convenience and satisfaction — Citizens can vote at home and take all the time they need to study the issues. Voters often express enthusiasm for mail-in voting elections.  During the time of a pandemic, it’s likely that enthusiasm will surge as safety is added to ease of use.  In addition to voter support, some reports indicate that because of its inherent convenience, voter participation increases.

Some disadvantages include the traditional benefits of in-person voting; the civic experience of voting with neighbors at a local school, church, or other polling place no longer exists.  Vote counts can take longer and the U.S. Postal Service does not have a uniform efficiency for all communities. 

But in a pandemic, voters would maximize their safety and still be able to act on their constitutional right to vote.  After all, shouldn’t democracy seek to promote participation and protect public safety?

Here in New York, Governor Cuomo took a step to expand voting by mail.  He has issued an Executive Order for the upcoming June primary that allows any voter to request an absentee ballot and mail it in.

The state Constitution allows for voting by absentee ballot when the voter has an excuse “because of illness or physical disability.”  The governor’s Executive Order includes the possibility of getting exposed to COVID-19 within the definition of “illness” in order to allow primary voters to obtain an absentee ballot.

The governor’s order still relies on voters to request an absentee ballot, though.  Voters can obtain an absentee ballot application online from the state Board of Elections.

The Executive Order, however, does not cover the fall general election.  Legislation has been introduced to make permanent the governor’s interpretation of New York’s Constitution.  Given the uncertainty of what things will look like in November, to protect the public’s health and safeguard democracy for all New Yorkers, let’s hope that legislative to do so gets approved before the end of the session.