ALBANY — Voters for decades knew to cast their ballots on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November and could reliably expect to hear the results broadcast that night or in the morning newspaper. But COVID-19 changed that this year and possibly forever with the explosion of mail-in voting, experts said.
"I think now the genie is out of the bottle and it’s not going to be easy to put back in," said Richard Benedetto, a journalism professor at American University in Washington and a former White House correspondent. "It is a major change, no question about it. Everything was geared to Election Day itself."
This general election, however, the number of mailed-in ballots in New York State and nationwide was so substantial that the votes could determine the outcomes of many major races. As a result, the call of the presidential election was delayed by fourdays. In many New York State races, the counting of absentee ballots to settle legislative races continued through last week, more than two weeks after the traditional Election Day on Nov. 3.
State governments acted quickly this year to allow voters to cast ballots by mail to avoid potential coronavirus super-spreader crowds at busy polling sites. Laws accelerated the use of mail-in ballots, which have been used for those in military service dating back to the Civil War. The use of mailed ballots has grown since California, in 1978, was the first state to end the need to provide a reason such as illness or working out of the county on election day to qualify for a mailed-in ballot. In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the Legislature this year took the major step of allowing voters to cite fear of COVID-19 at the polls as a legal reason to vote by mail. That prompted more than 1.9 million New Yorkers to cast absentee votes, with 324,145 from Long Islanders, according to state records released last week.
Taken together with early voting, in which more than 1.5 million New Yorkers went to the polls over nine days before Election Day, political scientists say voters are increasingly embracing the options to traditional Election Day voting and contributing to a high turnout.
"Many voters like it once they try it because it is convenient and efficient," said Kevin R. Kosar, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank. He cited academic and government studies that show mail-in voting isn’t biased to one party or fraught with fraud.
Yet the authorities acknowledge something is lost in casting ballots from your kitchen table.
"The concept of a big election night with parties and results is a really lovely national civic experience and I hope it continues, as it’s one of the few national civic experiences we have," said historian Lindsay Chervinsky, scholar-in-residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College.
For some, trust in the validity of the ballot can be lost the longer it takes for results to be announced.
"It undermines public confidence in the system," said Benedetto, noting that President Donald Trump continues to challenge the Nov. 3 results. "With Trump making such a fuss over it, it makes it even more mistrusted … some people think they were cheated. And that’s not a good thing in our system."
However, Chervinsky and other political scientists say that most voters are embracing the new option.
"My guess is that many states will be encouraged by the extremely high rates of participation and will keep the expanded early or mail voting options after the pandemic," she said. "Voting should be easy and readily available to all citizens, regardless of their work schedule on Election Day."
"If waiting becomes a tradition, and thus starts a new chapter in the history of U.S. elections, I think citizens will get used to it quickly," Chervinsky said.
Still, improvements already are being proposed.
"We can do better," said State Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn), chairman of the Senate Elections Committee, at a postelection symposium held by the New York Public Interest Research Group on Nov. 13. "Does it make sense that we are only starting to count absentee votes now? Probably not."
Assembly Elections Committee chairman Charles Lavine said another major proposal to enhance the use of absentee ballots would allow voters statewide to track their mailed-in ballots online, to ensure they have been received and counted. That service is popular in some other states, in New York City and some small upstate counties including Onondaga County, where it helps alleviate some concerns about discarded or lost ballots and fraud.
Lavine also said that absentee ballots need to be counted faster. But faster counting and online tracking require substantially more funding, and the state faces a deficit of more than $30 billion over the next two years exacerbated by the economic shutdown forced by the virus.
"It’s infinitely more expensive to process and manage voting by mail than it is by voting in person," Lavine (D-Glen Cove) said in an interview. "We will be looking to our partners in the federal government in the future."
Lavine noted that proposals to start counting absentee ballots as early as September face an obstacle in New York State. Under election law, a voter can overrule his or her absentee ballot on Election Day. The law also states that county boards of election can’t start counting absentee ballots until seven days after Election Day. That condition is in place to make sure that all votes postmarked on or before Election Day are counted.
But more than laws could change under continued expansion of absentee voting. More absentee voting, for example, also could lead to longer, more intense and potentially more expensive campaigns, even as polls show that many Americans are already tired of the length and volume of campaigning.
Those campaigns, however, might no longer include the "October surprise," in which both major parties release or amplify attacks on an opponent in the final days before Election Day.
"I think they may still want to do that, but they may have to make it a September surprise," Benedetto said. But that may be a good thing. "People will have more time to digest it … we don’t want an accusation to just stand out there because it sounds bad. It’s up to us in the media to see if there just smoke or a fire behind it."