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Election Night: Absentee vote is expected to delay some final results

People line up to vote early at the

People line up to vote early at the American Legion Post 1273 in Wantagh on Oct. 31, 2020. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

ALBANY — The polls close at 9 p.m. Tuesday, but because of another record year of absentee voting, a final count of all the ballots cast in the Nov. 2 election will take at least another week and the closest races may take days or weeks longer to decide.

When the polls close Tuesday night, election officials in every county will tabulate the votes cast that day as well as those through the early voting period that ended Sunday. Long Island voters will be going to the polls for numerous local races, including Nassau County executive and Nassau and Suffolk district attorneys, as well as five statewide ballot propositions.

By law, absentee ballots can’t be opened and counted for seven days. The measure is intended to provide enough time to make sure all mailed ballots are received at county boards of election.

"Unofficial vote totals including early voting and general election voting are posted as usual on our website on election night," said Anita Katz, a commissioner for the Suffolk County Board of Elections. "Absentee ballots will be included the following week."

Long Islanders have created another record year for absentee voting requests. The mail-in option is available for voters out of the county on Election Day or who are ill or fearful of catching or spreading the COIVD-19 virus.

Last year, a statewide record was set for a presidential election year. More than 1.56 million absentee votes were cast across the state -- compared with 400,660 in the 2016 presidential election year. In Suffolk County, more than 166,337 absentee ballots were cast and more than 152,118 in Nassau County.

This year, which is an off-year in the election cycle, 37,572 absentee ballots have been requested in Nassau County. Traditionally, about 60% of voters who request absentee ballots end up mailing in the ballots, election officials said. That could mean 22,543 absentee ballots could be added to the total votes in the county, which could effect some victory margins on Election Night. In 2019, the last off-year election, 3,611 absentee ballots were cast in Nassau. The number of requests wasn't available.

In Suffolk County 30,378 absentee ballots were requested, which traditionally could translate into 18,226 absentee votes to be counted. In the 2019 off-year election, 17,812 absentee ballots were requested and 8,949 were cast.

"We could potentially have 25,000 to 30,000 ... (absentee ballots cast) when all is said and done," said Nassau County Democratic Commissioner James P. Scheuerman. Nassau County’s unofficial vote will also be posted on its website Election Night.

All the races this year are on the county and local levels, mostly in smaller districts with fewer eligible voters. But Scheuerman said absentee voting doesn’t have a greater or less impact on races in these smaller districts or in the time it will take to count all the ballots.

The deadline for requesting absentee ballots by mail, online, fax, or email was Oct. 18. The last day to apply for an absentee ballot in person at a voter’s county Board of Elections is Monday. Those ballots – usually a small number – would have to be cast by 9 p.m. on Tuesday.

Voters can change their minds after mailing in a ballot and then vote at early voting sites or on Election Day. In those cases, their absentee ballot isn’t counted.

The law provides several ways for officials from both political parties and all candidates to confirm votes, which can be a lengthy process.

Candidates under law may dispute votes cast for their opponent in a bipartisan process at county boards of election. That often includes a painstaking process of Republican and Democratic election officials, as well as the candidates and their lawyers, evaluating each vote. That can add weeks to the delay in certifying official election results.

In addition, appeals in court could take weeks more.

All that could delay announcing winners, as happened in 2020 when the 3rd State Senate District race and the 4th Assembly District races, for example, weren’t decided until the first week in December. Republican Alexis Weik (R-Islip) won the Senate race and incumbent Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket) won re-election in the Assembly district.

There’s no reliable estimate of how long it will take this year for close races to be deemed final. Last year, the counting, which included long days and weekend shifts, took more than a month in some cases and testing was further delayed by an election official in Suffolk County who tested positive for COVID-19. All boards of election also were hampered by staff shortages, exacerbated in some counties by the fear of the coronavirus.

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