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Hochul says all New Yorkers should be able to vote by mail

Frank Bongiorno sorts absentee ballots at the Albany

Frank Bongiorno sorts absentee ballots at the Albany County Board of Elections building in Albany on Oct. 14. Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul said Thursday that all New Yorkers should be able to vote by mail, raising the question of whether the state would join nine others that automatically send ballots to voters.

Accomplishing that might take some heavy political lifting.

Hochul said she would outline a "bold and ambitious" plan to expand voting via the mail when she delivers her first State of the State address in January.

"I believe everyone should be able to vote by mail," the Buffalo Democrat said. "That's a radical proposition to some and to others it just makes sense. Why are there barriers to people exercising the most basic right in a democracy? … It’s been successful in other states."

She went on to reference Oregon, the first state to conduct its elections exclusively by mail. The state proactively sends ballots to all voters rather than making them request absentee ballots. As a result, turnout increased — more than 80% of the state’s voters cast ballots in 2000, when Oregon became the first state to conduct a presidential election exclusively by mail.

Eight other states also send ballots to voters. New York, like virtually all the rest, relies on an absentee system that requires the voter to request a ballot.

Hochul said New York hasn’t "been a leader in the past" in expanding voting access, but she wants to change that.

"I'll be working with all my partners for a very bold and ambitious plan so that New Yorkers have the right," she said, referring to vote-by-mail. She indicated her proposal would have the states covering the costs incurred by county boards of election.

Changing to a system of sending ballots automatically could require amending the state’s constitution, legislative officials and the League of Women Voters said Thursday. The constitution outlines reasons for obtaining an absentee ballot but also doesn’t appear to mandate voting be done in person, said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Last month, New Yorkers weighed a proposed constitutional amendment that would have ended the requirement that a voter apply for an absentee ballot and supply a reason for it, such as illness or work travel. But they voted down the so-called "no-excuse absentee ballot" proposal.

Some officials have suggested it would be easier and quicker to pass a law allowing the state to automatically send absentee-ballot applications to all voters, rather than the ballot itself.

No state legislator, however, currently sponsors a bill to do so, officials said Thursday.

"The governor is 100% right that vote-by-mail is the right way to go," Horner said. "Oregon has had it for a while and has some of the highest turnout rates in the country. The mechanics of ‘how’ the state would do it obviously has to be worked out. And it could be challenged in court."

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