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Voters want verification of absentee votes arrivals, officials say

Stacks of ballots are prepared to be checked

Stacks of ballots are prepared to be checked by a worker at a Board of Elections facility on July 22 in New York.  Credit: AP/John Minchillo

ALBANY — In an election year shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic that prompted new laws and a huge increase in mail-in voting, state election officials say one of the most common concerns of voters is that they can’t track whether their absentee ballot was delivered to be counted.

But for Long Islanders and most New Yorkers, such a tracking system is at least a year away, officials said.

Such systems are in place in New York City, in at least one upstate county and in at least some counties in as many as a dozen states from Maine to California. Voters there can click a website to see when the absentee ballot they requested was mailed from local election officials and when the completed ballot was received.

In New York State, county boards of election officials already working 10- and 12-hour days and weekends handling thousands of mailed-in ballots each day are fielding calls from voters worried that their ballot was lost in the mail or rejected. Elections officials try to look up the status of some of these requests, but there is no system yet that voters may directly use to ease their minds.

Also, election officials say that if they see mistakes or omissions on the return envelopes, they will call voters to fix the problems.

Efforts are underway in Albany that would allow all voters to verify on their own whether their ballots were received. Active bills introduced as recently as last month would require ballot tracking statewide.

The bill’s sponsors note that more than 1.7 million absentee ballots were requested in the June primary. That was more than 10 times the usual number of mail-in ballots cast, according to the state Board of Elections. The overall turnout for the Nov. 3 general election, which includes the presidential race, is expected to be much higher.

Sen. Luis R. Sepulveda (D-Bronx) introduced a bill Aug. 31 and, on Sept. 9, a bill was introduced in the Assembly directly into the powerful Assembly Rules Committee, which could act on the measure in January. The bills note many voters have complained about the lack of verification.

"This legislation will allow voters to track each step of the absentee ballot process, notifying them on every leg of its journey," Sepulveda’s bill states. "This is critical for transparency and voter protection as the reliance on mail-in ballots ensues from the growing pandemic."

There is already support for the proposal in the State Legislature and among good-government groups.

"New York voters should be able to track their ballots and make sure that their votes count," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "Anyone can track a package, New York City and other governments ensure that ballots can be tracked, so the technology exists."

It’s already in demand in New York City and in Onondaga County, where local governments paid for the tracking service.

"It’s very popular, especially this year," said Dustin Czarny, an Onondaga County elections commissioner. "It gives people peace of mind and we’re very glad we have it."

The big question for a statewide system, however, is funding.

"I think it’s in the future, but definitely not this year," said Anita Katz, Democratic commissioner in Suffolk County. "It would have to come from the State Legislature, but even then, it would be a huge expense. You’d have to overhaul the entire computer system in the state and all the money, for everyone, is gone. It doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea."

James Scheuerman, Democratic commissioner with the Nassau County Board of Elections, said about 30% of the calls to the board are voters asking to verify that their ballot was received.

"If that is something that can be done accurately and without adding more confusion to the process, it is certainly something we would look into," Scheuerman said.

The bills state the cost is "to be determined."

Voters’ calls for such a tracking system comes at a time when the state and local governments are facing deficits rivaling those of the Great Recession, primarily from the economic shutdown for months forced by the COVID-19 virus.

"If the state wants to give us resources, I would certainly support it," said Nick LaLota, Republican commissioner for the Suffolk County Board of Elections. "But these things typically come down to money."

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