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Virus forces burst of mail-in voting, shortage of poll workers

A voter fills out their ballot at a

A voter fills out their ballot at a polling station inside the Brooklyn Museum as early voting continues, Tuesday, June 16, 2020, in Brooklyn. Credit: AP/John Minchillo

ALBANY — The COVID-19 virus has triggered an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots statewide and on Long Island for Tuesday’s Democratic presidential primary and some local elections that will delay final results by more than a week.

That's just one of many changes voters will encounter because of the virus.

Statewide, more than 1.6 million voters have requested mail-in ballots, or more than 10 times the number of mail-in ballots cast in the 2016 presidential primary, according to the state Board of Elections. Potentially, that could mean 75% to 80% of Tuesday’s vote could be done by mail.

“That’s an astronomically high number,” said John Conklin of the state Board of Elections.

On Long Island, 84,000 Nassau County voters requested mail-in ballots and 30,559 were cast by Friday morning, and in Suffolk County,117,357 voters requested mail-in ballots and 48,818 were received by late last week, according to officials from both counties.

Some Democratic voters received two ballots — one for the Democratic presidential primary featuring presumptive nominee Joe Biden and for delegates to the party convention — and another for local races. The Republican presidential primary was canceled. The presumptive nominee is President Donald Trump.

Mail-in ballots won’t be tabulated until July 1, under law designed to allow all ballots to arrive by mail. But that also means that the majority of votes likely won’t be counted on Tuesday night, so results could take at least a week and perhaps far longer if there are challenges to party officials and their lawyers.

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Tuesday night’s results will include only early voting, which ended Sunday, and the votes cast at polling places on Tuesday.

“We’re not going to have what you would traditionally call results,” said Anita Katz, Democratic commissioner of the Suffolk County Board of Elections. “I’m not going to say it doesn’t mean anything, but it’s not an accurate count.”

The impact of the virus on the election doesn’t end there.

Statewide, many polling site workers, who average 60 to 65 years old nationwide, have declined to work on Tuesday out of fear of contracting the virus. In Suffolk County alone, two-third to three-quarters of the pool of 8,000 trained poll workers, who make $214 for the day, said they won’t work Tuesday. In Nassau County, 12 election workers canceled Friday, joining what may be a third or more of trained workers who don’t plan to work Tuesday. Most of the Nassau workers make about $250 for the day, after training.

In addition, some traditional polling places — such as schools, libraries and fire houses — had refused to open for voting on Tuesday because of fear of the virus. In some cases, election officials had to invoke the law that gives them the power to require the locations to be open for voting. In other cases, the law was used as leverage in negotiating the opening, election officials said.

In Suffolk County, for example, two polling sites were consolidated to one, but the county needed to insist on using a school gym because the large area with direct exits to the parking lots is among the best ways to protect against the spread of the virus.

That has led to substantial consolidation of polling sites. In Nassau County, 222 of 360 sites will be open. In Suffolk County, 122 of 338 sites will be open. Voters can see if their polling place has changed on the websites of their county board of elections or on the state Board of Elections website that has a lookup function for every voter (https://voterlookup.elections.ny.gov/).

 Voters will have to arrive with protective masks, or they will be provided one. If they refuse, they will be escorted to an area or room to vote. Poll workers will be sanitizing voting areas and cleaning or replacing pens between voters.

“We appreciate the cooperation of all voters,” Katz said. “We have done everything we can to make it safe and acceptable for all the citizens.”

 A tough night for election officials?

 “It’s going to be a tough month,” said James Scheuerman, Democratic elections commissioner for Nassau County.

Conklin, of the state board, said 98.5% of mail-in ballots had been processed statewide by Friday.

“Given the extraordinary volume of absentee ballots we have had to process without getting any additional resources from the state, these boards have done everything they can to get those ballots out,” Conklin said.

The Democratic presidential primary ballot will carry 10 other Democratic candidates who have suspended their campaigns since the primary was originally scheduled in April, before the vote was moved to limit large gatherings during the height of the virus. These additional candidates could attract votes to secure delegates to the Democratic nominating convention to influence the party’s platform. 

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

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