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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Nassau, Suffolk boards of election anticipate an avalanche of absentee ballots

An absentee ballot sits on a table with

An absentee ballot sits on a table with its envelope in Astoria, Queens, on June 16 before being mailed in for voting. Credit: Sipa USA / TJ Roth via AP

Quick, what's the most asked question of county boards of election these days?

The answer, according to Anita S. Katz, Suffolk's Democratic elections commissioner is, "How do I get an absentee ballot?"

"People are very into it — on both sides," she said.

By both sides, Katz means Republican and Democratic party members, who each have their own election commissioners in Suffolk and in Nassau counties.

As of midweek last week, Suffolk had received 80,000 requests for absentee ballots.

In Nassau. the number was about 40,000, according to John Ryan, a spokesman for Joseph J. Kearney, Nassau's acting Republican commissioner.

But those numbers do change, and change fast because each county now is receiving downloads of requests from registered voters who used the state's absentee ballot portal to request ballots.

Under an order from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, registered voters can cite the coronavirus pandemic as a reason for opting to vote absentee.

In addition to using the portal, voters can download and fax, email or mail their applications. They also can call the election boards, or visit in person.

"That's changed dramatically, the way we conduct business," Ryan said.

"By the time this is over, could there be hundreds of thousands of applications?" he asked. "We don't know."

As things are, the requests are arriving in numbers far greater than in previous years.

"Absentees usually make up 'X' percentage of the votes," Katz said. "This year, it looks like it's going to be 'X' times 30."

State law mandates that the mailing of some ballots — including those headed to members of the military — begin by Friday. But James Scheuerman, Nassau's Democratic commissioner, said he hoped the county could start sending out ballots earlier.

In theory, that would allow some Nassau voters to be over and done with their ballots before the end of the month.

Suffolk, Katz said, will meet it's Sept. 18 obligations — with the bulk of requested absentee ballots following "as soon as possible."

Last year, the boards had to handle New York's first-ever experience with in-person early voting.

This year, the boards will be counting the results from the higher absentee voter pool, nine days of early voting and that old reliable, Election Day, which is Nov. 3.

"It has never been easier to vote," Scheuerman said.

Easier, yes.

But some could find the multiple options confusing.

That's where the 700,000 letters sent out by Suffolk's board of elections will come in handy, Katz said.

The mailings, which under one of many election-related orders issued by Cuomo also will go to Nassau voters, offer very specific information, including a list of early-voting sites.

"It's got everything you need," Katz said.

Meanwhile, the boards have brought on additional part-time staff, some of whom are handling calls about voter registration, and, yup, absentee balloting.

Board of election staffers have been working through the pandemic. In Nassau, officials said, the office remained open for all but one day.

And while, early on, there were concerns that some veteran poll workers might balk at working on-site during the election because of the coronavirus pandemic, officials in both counties said that's not been the case.

"It is not going to be a problem, we're getting a lot of requests to work," Katz said.

Ryan agreed. "It's a national election year, sure, but we've been very careful with training people, with PPE [personal protection equipment], with masks and with gloves so people are feeling comfortable," he said.

And, as a quick aside, officials of the Nassau and Suffolk election boards said they didn't anticipate issues with the U.S. Postal Service. On the contrary, they said, the service has been helpful.

"They've been great," Scheuerman said. "We can go over, and we can get tomorrow's mail, today."

So, what happens on Election Day?

The boards will, as always, count the votes.

And, as always, they will release the results of early voting, and, as the night wears on, Election Day voting.

But what about absentees?

Will they be counted early?

"Nope, that can't happen under the law," Ryan said.

In prior years, the counting was delayed by a week or so, for absentee ballots to come in, he said.

This time, the boards are expected to begin counting the absentee ballots they have on hand earlier.

"Over here, I think, we may start that night," Ryan said.

Also, both counties have machines that should help speed the count, officials said.

But that's weeks away.

For now, officials at the Nassau and Suffolk election boards said if you want an absentee ballot, request it. (And, please note, if you asked for an absentee ballot during the primary you will have to make a separate request for the general election, officials said.)

Once you receive the ballot, Katz said, "Do not put it on the refrigerator, do not put it into a drawer — fill it out and send it back."

"The sooner, the better," Scheuerman said.

One more thing:

Grab a stamp, Katz said.

You'll need it to send the ballot back — if you opt for using the mail, that is, instead of dropping it off.

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