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Strengthening the vote in NY

Credit: Getty Images/Blake Callahan

It is possible for New York State to make smart changes, pull its moribund voting system into the 21st century, and set the stage for as smooth a general election in November as is achievable during a pandemic.

Or it can fail on all those fronts.

On Sunday, the editorial board outlined some of the national issues affecting the November election. The state-level issues are just as key.

Anyone who has struggled to figure out registration deadlines in New York knows we have a sloppy system. The delays and hiccups in the vote-by-mail-heavy June primary are warnings.

The State Senate and Assembly began the work last month by passing a suite of smart bills. This legislation would allow voters to send in absentee applications early and — crucially — request an absentee ballot due to concerns about disease. That would remove an obstacle that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo dealt with by executive order for the June primary. Another bill would allow a ballot without a dated postmark to be considered “timely mailed” if received the day after the election. And voters would have to be notified of certain absentee ballot mistakes — say, forgetting to sign the affirmation envelope — and be allowed to fix them.

Then there are measures that could help future voting, like initiating automatic voter registration when someone interacts with a government agency. That wouldn’t go into effect until 2023.

But even the more immediate fixes are awaiting Cuomo’s signature. He indicated on Friday that he would sign the bill allowing people to use COVID-19 as a reason to vote absentee. That’s good. He should go further.

In the primary, for which voters had to have been registered in a specific party, Cuomo’s executive order automatically sent eligible voters an absentee ballot application in the mail. That would be complicated and costly for the general because the pool of voters is much greater. The cost for the county boards of elections, including printing, mailing, and paying for return postage for absentee ballot applications, would be around $2.5 million for Suffolk and $1.74 million in Nassau.

That might be worthwhile to encourage wide and safe participation during the pandemic. But it’s expensive and complicated, which is why county BOEs need more funding from Washington this year even to pull off their typical functions.

Other work is similarly unfinished. There is a bill that passed the Senate but is stuck in the Assembly that would add college campus polling sites. And more poll workers, who are often older and more vulnerable to COVID-19, are needed to fill absences.

If the postal system continues to lack funding and suffer political interference, designated drop boxes for ballots may be worth exploring. You can already drop absentee ballots at early voting sites or election board offices.

The challenges are clear and some preparations have been made, like Nassau and Suffolk’s new equipment to quickly scan ballots. Let’s keep up the progress so New York can have a safe and smooth vote in November.

 — The editorial board