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Easier voting, faster counting part of push to improve NY elections

Ballots are sorted at the Nassau County Board

Ballots are sorted at the Nassau County Board of Elections on Nov. 6 in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

ALBANY — Legislators, academics and good-government advocates are seizing on the way voters embraced more and safer ways to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic to push for additional changes in New York elections after decades of stalled reform efforts.

"Most of our election laws are predicated on what I think is a kind of faulty 19th century view of elections that stem completely from political clubhouses like Tammany Hall," said Assemb. Robert C. Carroll (D-Brooklyn), referring to historically corrupt political machines. "It has a chilling effect."

Bills in Albany include those to:

  • End the patronage hiring of election administrators and staff controlled by political parties.
  • Speed the weekslong process of counting absentee votes.
  • Allow New Yorkers to register to vote on the same day they vote.
  • Allow voters to change parties within days rather than months before an election.
  • Combat obstacles to voting, particularly those faced by minority voters under the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act.
  • Provide voters with online information in real time about which polling sites are crowded and which aren’t.

The measures would build on election reform legislation begun in 2019, when Democrats controlled the State Senate and Assembly, to improve New York's low turnout compared with most other states.

November's election saw a huge surge in absentee ballots after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued emergency orders aimed at thinning crowds anticipated at polling sites for the presidential election.

That increase slowed the reporting of election results; final results for some races took six weeks to determine.

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In interviews and online discussions held by the Brooklyn Voter Alliance, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School and the New York Public Interest Research Group, experts predicted voter demand would fuel a watershed year for reforms in the legislative session that begins in January

But backers of change will have to overcome entrenched political opposition that has sunk some of these same ideas before, observers said.

Major proposals include ending the bipartisan structure of state and local boards of elections. State law requires an equal number of Democratic and Republican commissioners who must approve reforms, and disagreements have resulted in tie votes that left changes undone.

"It’s frustrating," said Douglas A. Kellner, co-chairman of the New York State Board of Elections. "I have to go back and convince my Republican colleagues and it often means the lowest common denominator rules."

More than a dozen other states do it differently.

Some assign the task to an elected secretary of state answerable to voters.

Others appoint professionals with academic backgrounds in election law and staffers hired only from lists of those who passed Civil Service tests without regard to party enrollment.

Such fundamental changes in New York, however, would require a constitutional amendment. That would require at least three years to gain approval by two consecutively elected State Legislatures, along with a voter referendum.

The idea has never gained much support among state lawmakers.

"We have elected officials laying out the rules of the game and we lose focus that it’s supposed to be about the voters," said Franita Tolson, law professor at the University of Southern California.

Susan Lerner of Common Cause-NY also noted the "political risk that legislators would face if they go up against the party structure … To stand up and say, ‘I don’t want my county chair to have control over the board of elections’ — it is seen by many as political suicide. And I can’t say they are necessarily wrong."

Tom Speaker, policy analyst for Reinvent Albany, a nonprofit that backs increased accountability in state government, said: "Boards serve parties, not voters."

Many of the changes require new funding, and state and local boards of election often have had little success in getting legislators to increase staffing and resources, election experts said.

Lawmakers "want to give as little funding as possible because they don’t have the control," said Dustin M. Czarny, Democratic commissioner for the Onondaga County Board of Elections.

"There needs to be a role for the state here to give some minimum funding," Czarny said. "That money could help to reform boards of election as well, and could be a hammer to make boards follow minimum transparency guidelines that are pro-voter."

The financial need was clear when election boards had to scramble for funding this year to greatly expand mail-in voting of absentee ballots and to handle unexpected crowds at early voting sites in each county.

Election officials working nights and weekends successfully implemented major changes in just a few weeks this year.

"For the 2020 election we were fortunate to have many grants, both federal and private, that we were able to take full advantage of which helped us cover the costs of purchasing equipment, hiring additional staff and other costs that we incurred and we otherwise could not have covered,’’ said James P. Scheuerman, Democratic commissioner for the Nassau County Board of Elections.

The funds sunset at the end of the year, Scheuerman said, and 20% to 25% more is needed to cover the increased cost of postage, printing and staffing to handle the huge increase in voters who mailed in ballots and took part in early voting over nine days before Election Day.

"The biggest problem is lack of funding for the state board and local boards," agreed Anita Katz, Democratic election commissioner in Suffolk County.

The increased financial need comes as state and local governments face historic deficits from the economic shutdown forced by the pandemic.

However, many substantial changes can be done cheaply and relatively quickly, election officials said.

"We need to look at little changes that have big effects," said Czarny of Onondaga County, citing proposals to allow voters to remain registered and eligible to vote if they move across county lines or live on a college campus.

"These kinds of things, these hypercritical things, can make our elections so much better," Czarny said. "The little stuff can have a big effect."

Perhaps the most significant concern emerging from the Nov. 3 election was how long it took to determine winners.

More than 1.2 million absentee ballots were cast statewide.

Under law, election officials had to make sure these voters didn’t also vote at a polling site. New York also is one of the few states that allows voters to overrule their mailed-in ballot at the polls and election officials must check to make sure no one voted more than once.

State law also requires election officials to wait seven days before beginning to count absentee ballots to allow all the ballots to be received by mail.

This year, many results were delayed until the unusually high number of mailed votes were counted. That was because the number of absentee votes often exceeded the difference between candidates in votes cast on machines by Nov. 3.

"If the laws change to say that if you vote by mail you are ineligible to vote in person, that would allow us to begin tabulating those votes sooner," Scheuerman said.

"We have got to do better on absentee ballot counting and there are creative ways for us to do this counting early," said Senate Election Law Committee Chairman Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn).

"I think everything should be on the table," Myrie said. "This is a gargantuan task … When you give more people more days to vote, more ways to vote, guess what? More people vote."

Ideas proposed by legislators and advocates to encourage more voting and improve administration of elections in New York State include:

  • “Automatic registration” of voters when they interact with state and local government agencies. The bill passed and was signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to register an estimated 2 million eligible voters not on the rolls.
  • Allowing voters to register to vote on the day they vote.
  • Counting absentee ballots as they arrive, not beginning seven days after Election Day, as required in law now.
  • Requiring more early voting sites. The minimum required of counties now is 10 or one site for every 50,000 registered voters. Some states have a site for every 10,000 voters.
  • Expanding early voting. It's currently nine days before Election Day. Other states have as many as 45 days to vote early and the national average is 19 days, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
  • Statewide online tracking so that voters can confirm progress of their vote from the time it’s mailed.
  • An online system in which voters can determine which early voting sites are busy or have the shortest lines.
  • Opening all polling sites to all voters so that they can choose the shortest line, rather than the line assigned in their district.
  • Reducing the campaign contribution limits to curb the influence of wealthy interests and increase the confidence of voters in a system.
  • Registering prisoners to vote when they are released. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s 2018 executive order restores voting rights to felons once they leave prison, but they must register to vote.
  • Allowing registered voters other than Republicans and Democrats to hold jobs at boards of elections at polls. Currently, New Yorkers enrolled in a minor party or no party can’t land the paid positions, even though the number of voters who choose not to enroll in a party exceeded the number of enrolled Republicans statewide this year.
  • Expand outreach to high schools and colleges, street fairs, houses of worship to register new voters and to preregister youths under 18 years old.

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