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Lessons learned in state primary prompting fixes for November election 

A voter wears a protective mask while casting

A voter wears a protective mask while casting their ballot in New York's primary election at a polling site inside Yonkers Middle/High School on June 23 in Yonkers. Credit: AP / John Minchillo

ALBANY — Federal, state and local officials are trying to quickly apply hard lessons learned in the summer primaries to better handle a huge influx of mail-in votes expected for the November general election as voters again seek to avoid spread of the COVID-19 virus at crowded polls.

“New York stands out, in terms of the mail part, as the state that did the worst in the country, not just in terms of the length of the count, but by the number of ballots that were rejected,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. “It seems as much as 10% or more were rejected.”

Efforts try to fix the problems are now underway in Washington, Albany, the courts, in counties that are already strapped for cash from the economic shutdown forced by the pandemic; and within long understaffed local boards of elections statewide. Some are innovative — such as drop boxes for ballots on sidewalks and offices — while others seek to undo practices that were created in the 19th century.

The measures need to balance encouraging this summer’s 10-fold increase in mail-in ballots as a precaution against COVID-19, while not disenfranchising voters, experts say.

Pending are bills approved by the State Legislature last month in anticipation of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo extending the new form of absentee voting into the general election. They would allow more time to apply for and receive mail-in ballots; allow county boards of elections to process mail-in ballot applications at any time rather than only within 30 days of an election, and require that voters be informed if their ballots had technical errors, such as failing to sign the ballot, so that a voter can fix the problem before Election Day.

Cuomo hasn’t yet said if he will sign those bills into law. Rank-and-file legislators last week said they expect he may put the measures in an executive order, possibly with some adjustments based on lessons from the primary.

“They will have to learn from them,” Cuomo said, “and make the system better for November.”

In the summer primaries on June 23 and to some extent in the school board votes on June 17, some voters never received mail-in ballot applications or ballots, some voters had too little time to cast their ballot to meet the deadline for counting, many voters unfamiliar with mailing in ballots forgot to sign their ballots, and some post offices failed to mark the date a ballot was mailed to comply with deadlines. The deluge of mailed-in votes delayed results for weeks.

New York considers mail-in voting and absentee voting to be the same thing. Cuomo’s executive order in March expanded the traditional absentee ballot. Under Cuomo’s order, which he is expected to expand to the November election, any concern about contracting the COVID-19 virus at polls is now accepted as a reason to vote by mail.

Many more adjustments are being proposed. Among them are allowing more time for ballots postmarked before Election Day to be received and counted. The summer primaries showed that it can take five days or longer for a valid mail-in ballot that was postmarked as late as Election Day to make it through the mail. Other changes could allow local boards of elections to start counting the huge influx of ballots cast during early voting and mail-in ballots as they are received. This summer, counting of mail-in votes couldn’t begin under current law for a week after Election Day, contributing to unprecedented delays in final results.

Such a delay won’t be allowed in November under state election law, which requires harder, shorter deadlines for counts and recounts in general elections and in presidential elections.

State and local officials are also expected to make a greater public push for early voting, in which voters may cast their ballots at a limited number of polling places from Oct. 24 to Nov. 1.

Some advocates also are pushing for drop boxes used in most other states, so that voters can securely drop off their ballots at government buildings and other public places. Colorado has one box for every 15,000 voters and it can make a huge difference in reducing the crush at the poll and uncertainty of the mail, Norden said.

Still other changes include a new law that allows 17-year-old high school students to work at the polls, which traditionally have been staffed by workers in their 60s or older. Many veteran poll workers decided not to work the primaries because of fear of contracting the virus in crowded polling places.

In Washington, the New York congressional delegation is seeking more funding to hire more people at election offices to process and count ballots, and the Post Office is working to make sure all ballots are accurately postmarked.

In New York State, the National Guard may help local election officials process and organize ballots to count. At the local level, some counties, including Westchester County, are enlisting government workers to staff polling sites and to assist the boards of elections.

In the courts, a federal judge has ordered that ballots cast without postmarks, and therefore invalidated by city elections officials, must still be counted.

Democratic commissioners in the state Board of Elections dropped an appeal of the case, but Co-Chairman Peter Kosinski, a Republican, still believes the judge’s decision will place a “tremendous burden on the local boards of elections,” board spokesman John Conklin said Friday.

Local boards of elections were told late Thursday to start reviewing and counting ballots that were held because they didn’t have the proper postmark.

Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York said a Post Office error shouldn’t invalidate a vote, “Our laws are unnecessarily complicated,” Lerner said. “They have taken some small steps, but they need to do more.”

She said experience from the primary shows that more time is needed for voters to receive and cast ballots and more funding is needed, adding that it has to be done fast to be ready for the general election.

She also said the ballot itself is poorly structured and that led many voters to fail to sign their ballots, resulting in disqualification. It was one of most common reasons for invalidating ballots.

“New York has learned important lessons,” Lerner said. “The major problem is that our New York election law, as far as absentee ballots is concerned, remains moored in the 19th century.”

Further pressuring the system are some harder deadlines in November.

State election law states that the first canvass, or count of votes, is due by Nov. 18, and the results of any recount must be reported by Nov. 28. New York also must have its presidential vote final by Dec. 8, to be ready for the Electoral College vote for president on Dec. 14, according to state law.

“Democracy is never easy,” said Assembly Elections Law Committee Chair Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove). “We will see early voting, we will see same-day voting and I believe we will be voting by mail as well and in greater numbers than we have seen before. Our challenge is going to be to make sure everyone’s vote counts, and that will take time. We all have to be patient.”

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