ALBANY — New York legislators passed a bill Wednesday to give voters more time to apply for and receive absentee ballots — a move they hope will fix some of the coronavirus-driven problems witnessed in last month’s statewide primary.
The Senate and Assembly suspended a law that says county-level boards of election cannot process any absentee applications until 30 days before Election Day. Instead, local boards could process an application as soon as it is received.
That means local boards won’t have to wait until the final 30 days of a campaign to mail ballots. Voters are expected to vote absentee in unprecedented numbers this year because of the pandemic and the new legislation gives local boards time to accommodate them, legislators said.
The state Assembly approved the bill late Tuesday; the Senate followed on Wednesday.
It was one of several elections and voting measures legislators planned to approve in the wake of the pandemic and the June primary. Another measure would give voters an opportunity to fix minor errors on mail-in ballots.
Another implements the so-called Automatic Voter Registration Act. Under it, any time a resident has an interaction with most state agencies — such as housing, temporary and disability assistance, social services and labor — the agency would automatically give or send a voter registration application.
However, the bill, if passed and then signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, wouldn’t become effective till 2023.
Legislators said the primary showed New Yorkers are embracing vote-by-mail opportunities, but the law needs to change to accommodate them — especially the time tables for applying, receiving and sending ballots.
“What we saw in the primary was local boards of election and the Post Office had to cope with unprecedented volume and a compressed window to act,” Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn) said in an interview. “Under this bill, people can apply at a much earlier date and boards can process those requests on a rolling basis.”
Citing the pandemic, Cuomo loosened the limits on receiving an absentee ballot for the June 23 primary. As a result, more than 1.6 million voters statewide requested mail-in ballots — more than 10 times the number cast by mail in New York in the 2016 presidential primary, according to the State Board of Elections.
But there were problems.
Some voters didn’t receive the absentee ballot before June 23, meaning they either had to vote in person or sit out the election. Minor errors — such as signing the absentee ballot but not its envelope — caused thousands of votes to be disqualified.
Counting the votes has taken so long, some races still haven’t been finalized a month later.
Myrie also sponsored the bill that would allow voters to remedy what he called small errors in a mail-in ballot. Under it, the local election board would have to notify the voter within one business day after the election. He said the reason so many June ballots were disqualified is because many were voting absentee for the first time.
“In the majority of cases, it was innocuous mistakes because it’s not something they are familiar with,” Myrie said, adding the law needed amending “because we are in a new era of civil engagement in a pandemic.”