Two bill proposals in Albany are designed to extend legislation...

Two bill proposals in Albany are designed to extend legislation saying that catching COVID-19 is a valid reason to get an absentee ballot.  Credit: Newsday/Ken Sawchuk

ALBANY — This year voters will no longer be able to use concern about catching COVID-19 — as opposed to actually contracting the virus — as a valid reason to use the popular mailed-in absentee ballot and avoid polling places.

But a last-minute effort in Albany is trying to change that. One bill would extend the practice permanently; another would extend it for another year.

Since 2020, New York voters have been able to cite the concern over contracting COVID-19 at crowded polls. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo first allowed it in an emergency executive order and then the State Legislature passed it into law. The result was hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers choosing to vote by absentee ballots.

The law expired Dec. 31.

The next statewide election is June 27 — a primary. The deadlines are:

  • June 12 is the last day county and city boards of election can receive absentee ballot applications by letter, fax or through the state’s online absentee request portal.
  • June 26 is the last day voters can drop off an absentee ballot application in person.
  • June 27 is the last day to postmark a ballot and it must be received by the local board of elections no later than July 4.
  • June 27 is also the last day a ballot can be dropped off in person at a board of elections office or at any polling site in the voter’s county.

“Voters can still request an absentee ballot in the same manner they would have pre-COVID, the only difference is they cannot use the ‘temporary illness or physical disability’ excuse in relation to fear of a communicable disease," said Jennifer Wilson, spokeswoman for the state Board of Elections.

The new legislation would expand the reasons for obtaining an absentee ballot beyond illness and being out of the country on Election Day to include concern about getting the virus. Last week, the federal government ended the national health emergency for COVID-19, but the disease is still infecting New Yorkers statewide. For example, on Thursday, 220 New Yorkers were admitted to hospitals because of COVID-19 and two died, according to state Health Department statistics.

“Lawmakers should quickly enact these modern voting proposals in time for upcoming elections,” said Jarret Berg, Voting Rights Counsel at Vote Early New York. “Without this law, dozens of counties may attempt to raise new barriers to absentee balloting, leaving voters with less access — less safe access — than they have enjoyed for the past three years."

Mail-in balloting was quickly embraced by Democratic voters and the party made an early push to get its members to apply for absentee ballots during the pandemic. The practice was credited for improving Democratic voter turnout.

Republicans, however, had argued the mailing of ballots would lead to fraud and didn’t urge their voters to use them. The GOP led the opposition to a failed 2021 constitutional amendment proposed by Democrats to allow mail-on, "no-excuse" voting for any reason. 

“COVID lockdowns are over," said Assemb. Chris Tague (R-Schoharie), who is a member of the chamber's Election Law Committee. "The rest of America gets it, but New York Democrats are still trying to keep COVID protocols alive. New Yorkers already have the ability to vote by absentee ballot when circumstances warrant it … This is just an obvious ploy — under the guise of public health — to tilt elections in favor of Democrats.”

No widespread fraud has ever been proved, and, Democrats argue, allowing voters to cite fear of COVID-19 in applying for absentee ballots helped raise New York’s low voter turnout.

“People — a lot of older people in particular — are afraid to go crowded to places. So, allowing people to vote by absentee ballot if they are ill or afraid of becoming ill would be very good. It’s not just for older people, but for people who are immune compromised,” said Assemb. Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx).

“We need to do this,” said Dinowitz, chairman of the powerful Codes Committee and the sponsor of both bills. “We only have four weeks now and the time to act is upon us.”

Several good-government groups support the bill.

"COVID is still a threat, particularly to seniors and those with chronic illnesses,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “New Yorkers have gotten used to protecting their health at the polling place, but that protection has lapsed unless Albany acts.”

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