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Election officials warn of more voting problems in November

A state primary poling place in Mineola is

A state primary poling place in Mineola is seen at 240 Old Country Rd. on June 23. Credit: Howard Schnapp

ALBANY — Elections officials on Tuesday said the problems in the June primary election that invalidated more than a quarter of the votes in some areas will likely be exacerbated in the November general election, and time is already short to make fixes.

“We recognize there were problems,” said Todd Valentine, co-executive director of the state Board of Elections, at a legislative hearing on Tuesday. But he warned: “The system itself does not turn quickly.”

Election officials said the crux of the problem is that New York State’s election laws and apparatus are still based on voting at the polls, even as many states moved in recent years to mail-in and other forms of voting. Historically in New York, only 5% to 8% of votes have been absentee ballots mailed into local elections boards. In the June primary, mail-in ballots accounted for 50% to 60% of votes as voters avoided crowded polls and the threat of contracting the COVID-19 virus, said elections officials.

In November, mail-in votes statewide could be four times greater, officials said.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in March ordered the expansion of absentee ballots to limit crowds at polls. His executive order allowed voters to cite concern about COVID-19 as a valid reason to receive an absentee ballot. He is expected to extend that measure for the November election when the presidential race draws the biggest turnouts.

State and local election officials said they muddled through the June 23 primary even as their understaffed offices were thinned further by the virus and by older poll workers who declined to work out of fear of contracting the virus.

For Nov. 3, they said, far more hiring and training needs to be done fast. But local governments and the state Board of Elections testified that the $25 million in federal and state funds they received to transition to mail-in balloting was all spent for the June primary. Two officials said as much as $50 million will be needed for the November, election, while the state is dealing with a $13 billion shortfall.

“We have run elections in times of turmoil,” said Robert Brehm, co-executive director of the state Board of Elections. “But the COVID-19 pandemic has turned out to be longer, more sustained … it is now almost impossible to turn that around.”

State law restricts when the boards of election can mail ballots to applications to 30 days before an election, providing voters with a short window to send them back. In June, the Post Office failed to postmark some ballots as required by election law and other ballots didn’t reach local boards of election by the voting deadline.

“The current time limit is unrealistic and led to disenfranchisement,” said Peter Kosinski, the Republican co-chair of the state Board of Elections.

Kosinski noted that other states have taken years to transition to mostly mail-in voting.

“What we are trying to do is make this transition in just a few months,” Kosinksi said. “You can’t resolve the issues that quickly.”

The officials pushed for extensive public service announcements to encourage early voting up to 10 days before Election Day and to explain how to complete absentee ballots so that they aren’t invalidated for technical flaws.

Another proposal was the use of “drop boxes” in communities to deposit absentee ballots. Currently drop boxes are only used at some local boards of elections during their business hours, but other states such as Colorado have a drop box in the community for every 15,000 votes.

Meanwhile, Cuomo hasn’t yet signed or vetoed bills passed in July that would allow boards of elections to send out absentee ballots as early as September and allow the ballots to be counted as they are received to speed up the vote tally. Some close races weren't decided for a month in the June primary.

On Tuesday, officials offered little hope of improving on that record.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to think you have a quicker count in November,” Kosinski said.

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