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Early voting starts for primary election complicated by virus

An application to obtain a New York State

An application to obtain a New York State absentee ballot for Suffolk County. Credit: Newsday/Ken Sawchuk

ALBANY — New York's measures to try to avoid long lines at polling places for the primary election on June 23 include expanded mail-in voting to try to stem the spread of COVID-19 and early voting to try to avoid the frustration over long lines felt by primary voters in other states, according to officials.

Early voting begins Saturday and runs through June 21.

In the Democratic presidential primary, former Vice President Joe Biden is the presumptive nominee, but 10 other Democratic candidates who have suspended their campaigns remain on the ballot in order to try to secure delegates to the Democratic nominating convention in hopes of influencing the party’s platform.

The Republican presidential primary was canceled. The presumptive nominee is President Donald Trump.

On Long Island, Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians will be able to choose nominees for several congressional and state legislative races as well.

The primary had been moved from April to reduce large gatherings during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Only a limited number of polling places will be open in Nassau and Suffolk counties for early voting. The hours also vary by day.

At the polling places, voters will have to adhere to social distancing requirements by staying 6 feet from others and will have to wear masks, or one will be provided. If a voter refuses to wear a mask, he or she will be escorted to a separate balloting station in the polling place, according to the state Board of Elections.

In addition to early voting, voters may use absentee ballots by identifying the virus as the reason for avoiding the polls, according to a temporary order by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The last day to postmark an application, which is available on the state board of elections’ website, or letter of application by mail to local boards of election is June 16. Voters have until June 22 to apply for absentee ballot in person at their board of elections. June 23 is the last day an absentee ballot may be postmarked. An absentee ballot can be delivered in person to local election boards on Election Day, June 23.

Still, there are concerns that the virus will have an impact.

For example, officials fear that some poll workers — average age 60 to 65 nationwide — may not want to work because of the virus risk, which could lead to delays in voting. Fear of the virus could dissuade voters from going to the polls and New Yorkers' inexperience with absentee ballots also could lead to problems, researchers said.

“That’s the fear,” said Matthew Weil of the Elections Project of the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank based in Virginia. “In places like New York, where you don’t see a huge amount of absentee ballots, people just aren’t used to mail-in voting. Service time to the post office can be five days or longer and we know voters don’t think about things until just before Election Day. There needs to be a lot more voter education.”

And then there's the issue of how long it will take to know the results.

“Candidates and voters should not expect to know results on election night,” said John Conklin of the state Board of Elections. “With a significant portion of the vote coming via absentee ballots, it will take probably weeks after the election to count all the ballots and declare winners. We have a similar counting procedure to Pennsylvania.”

Absentee votes are subject to challenges by politically appointed elections commissions and by candidates’ lawyers, which can delay results for weeks or months.

Recent presidential primaries in Georgia, Pennsylvania and, on Tuesday, South Carolina provide a cautionary note for New York’s vote. Voters in those states spent hours waiting in long lines despite the threat of the virus. Precautions against the virus — including sanitizing pens and surfaces and the far greater use of mail-in ballots — further delayed the vote results in those states.

“It’s a very different time,” said Susan Lerner of Common Cause/NY, a good-government group, “but democracy does not pause. It is absolutely essential that people have faith, that the elections are going forward and that they can cast a ballot safety and it will be counted.”

Early voting

Early voting for the June 23 primary election begins Saturday.

Voters enrolled in political parties will be able to vote at 27 early voting polling sites in Nassau and Suffolk counties. The sites may be different from a voter’s traditional polling place and may operate under different hours.

Voters can look up the correct site on the state Board of Elections website (https://voterlookup.elections.ny.gov/).

In addition, polling locations and hours are listed on the Nassau and Suffolk boards of election websites.

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