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Thousands of voters deemed 'inactive' may have to file affidavit ballots

People vote early in Garden City on Sunday.

People vote early in Garden City on Sunday. Credit: John Roca

ALBANY — Thousands of Long Islanders who go to the polls for early voting or on Nov. 3 could be told they are "inactive voters" and will have to complete a paper affidavit ballot or see a judge to make their choices count.

Inactive voters most often are New Yorkers who moved, changed their name in a marriage, or whose annual card from their board of elections to confirm they are registered to vote was kicked back by the U.S. Postal Service to the county as undeliverable. A New Yorker can also be deemed inactive if he or she hasn’t voted in two consecutive federal elections or in the state and local elections between those elections. After that, a voter’s registration can be deleted.

However, election officials provide several recourses for those voters at the polls.

"The board mailed multiple notices to voters notifying them of their status," said Republican Suffolk County Commissioner Nick LaLota. "One of our mailers included notifying inactive voters of their inactive status and how to reactivate."

In presidential election years such as this one, the number of affidavit ballots cast increases because turnout rises.

As of the state’s last count in February, there were 1.27 million inactive voters statewide. That includes 99,726 inactive voters in Suffolk County and 97,054 inactive voters in Nassau County.

In the 2016 presidential election, about 10,000 affidavit ballots were cast in Nassau and more than 15,000 were cast in Suffolk, officials said.

Election inspectors at poll sites have lists of inactive voters, which are checked on electronic poll books for each person seeking to vote. Telling voters they aren’t registered can be a contentious discussion, officials said. Verdicts on those affidavit votes are made after Election Day by a bipartisan team of election officials.

"I think particularly this year people are very paranoid about losing their right to vote," said Anita Katz, Democratic commissioner for the Suffolk County Board of Elections. "Often, we can convince people that an affidavit is a real vote and if you are registered, we will count it.

"I expect this year people will be more concerned about it, but I assure you an affidavit vote is a real ballot, just like in a machine, and we will do our research after Election Day and if they are registered, it will count," Katz said.

Nassau County has similar plans in dealing with what could be a tense situation in this year’s election, which already has been marked by a sharp partisan divide.

"I'm sure if an inactive voter goes to the polls and is asked to vote affidavit, there can be some tension," said James P. Scheuerman, Democratic commissioner with the Nassau County Board of Elections. "In that instance, the voter can go before a judge and get a court order to be able to vote on the machine."

Election officials from both major political parties are prepared to advise voters and can reactivate a registration. The voter will be notified by letter if their ballot wasn’t counted for any reason.

A judge and court clerk also will be at the sites or on call, possibly through an online platform such as Zoom, to rule on disputes that can’t be settled by the bipartisan group of election officials. A voter may request an order from a judge to allow the ballot to be cast on a machine.

Often, the election officials and judges can work through problems such as an address change and allow a person to cast the paper ballot, election officials said. On Election Day, if an inactive voter shows up at the wrong polling place because they moved within the county, he or she will be directed to the correct site where they can complete an affidavit ballot. Early voters may cast ballots at any site within their county.

The affidavit ballots are then reviewed after Election Day, where the bipartisan team of election officials can rule whether it can be counted. Not all affidavit ballots survive this process.

In the 2016 presidential election, for example, 15,874 affidavit ballots were cast in Suffolk County and 7,572 ballots were accepted and counted.

Despite 80,000 more registered voters now than in 2016 in Suffolk County alone, LaLota expects to see fewer affidavit ballots cast on Nov. 3 compared with the last presidential election.

"Whether you are on social media or on any of your apps, voting is a hot topic and one that many outside groups and organizations have spent resources on educating the public on voter registration and participation," LaLota said.

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