N.Y. of­fi­cials say they have fixed woes that marred pri­mary bal­lot

New York Daily News - - NEWS - THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

AL­BANY — With the clock ticking down to Elec­tion Day, of­fi­cials are cau­tiously op­ti­mistic New York has fixed prob­lems with mail-in vot­ing that led to de­lays and dis­en­fran­chise­ment in a rocky June pri­mary.

As many as 4 to 5 mil­lion New York­ers are ex­pected to cast ab­sen­tee bal­lots af­ter Gov. Cuomo au­tho­rized their wide­spread use be­cause of the coron­avirus pan­demic.

In the pri­mary, two out of five votes were cast by mail, an un­prece­dented ra­tio that strained a sys­tem that nor­mally handles fewer than 1 in 20 votes.

Lo­cal elec­tion boards strug­gled to get bal­lots into vot­ers’ hands on time. There was con­fu­sion about bal­lots ar­riv­ing with­out a post­mark to in­di­cate whether they had been mailed by Elec­tion Day. Thou­sands of mailed bal­lots were dis­qual­i­fied over tech­ni­cal is­sues, like miss­ing sig­na­tures.

But af­ter a sum­mer of re­fine­ments, of­fi­cials say the state is bet­ter pre­pared.

“I don’t an­tic­i­pate that it’s go­ing to be per­fect,” state board of elec­tion com­mis­sioner Dou­glas Kell­ner said. “But I do think it will be pretty good.”

Among the fixes:

● The state let vot­ers re­quest ab­sen­tee bal­lots ear­lier — in late Au­gust, rather than early Oc­to­ber.

● It re­designed bal­lot en­velopes to make it clear where vot­ers must put their sig­na­ture.

● Some ar­chaic rea­sons for re­jected bal­lots are gone.

● Ab­sen­tee bal­lots will no longer be dis­qual­i­fied if some­one changes the color of their ink or switches from a pen to a pen­cil while fill­ing out the form.

● In maybe the big­gest change, elec­tion of­fi­cials must now no­tify vot­ers by phone or email within 24 hours if there is a prob­lem with their bal­lot. Vot­ers will get ei­ther five or seven days to fix prob­lems, de­pend­ing on when their bal­lot ar­rived at the elec­tions of­fice.

Be­fore those changes, New York’s rate of re­jected ab­sen­tee bal­lots had been among the na­tion’s high­est. Dur­ing the 2018 midterm elec­tions, 34,095 ab­sen­tee bal­lots — nearly 14% of those cast — were dis­qual­i­fied by elec­tions of­fi­cials, ac­cord­ing to the ad­vo­cacy group League of Women Vot­ers.

“There are al­ways prob­lems with ev­ery hu­man sys­tem, but the good news is that there’s am­ple time to fix them and vot­ers have plenty of op­tions,” Com­mon Cause New York Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor Su­san Lerner said. “The most im­por­tant thing is to make a plan to vote now, and then have a back-up plan in case you need it.” Con­cerns re­main.

New York is the largest of over two dozen states, in­clud­ing Penn­syl­va­nia, Illi­nois, and Ohio, where vot­ers can re­quest an ab­sen­tee

bal­lot as late as Oct. 27 — seven days be­fore the elec­tion.

That leaves lit­tle time for of­fi­cials to process an ap­pli­ca­tion and mail out the bal­lot in time for the voter to have it back in the mail by Elec­tion Day.

Be­tween 100,000 to 200,000 vot­ers didn’t re­ceive their ab­sen­tee bal­lot in time for the June pri­mary, ac­cord­ing to Kell­ner.

He urged vot­ers to re­quest and mail back bal­lots early.

“It’s time for vot­ers to make their de­ci­sion on how they’re go­ing to vote now and not wait un­til the last minute,” he said.

For the pri­mary, the state also in­ad­ver­tently cre­ated a prob­lem by send­ing vot­ers a postage-paid re­turn en­ve­lope for their ab­sen­tee bal­lot. Be­cause postage wasn’t re­quired, postal work­ers in Brook­lyn then failed to put a post­mark on nearly 4,900 of those en­velopes, lead­ing to un­cer­tainty about whether they were mailed by an Elec­tion Day dead­line.

For the gen­eral elec­tion, vot­ers will have to buy stamps. Ad­di­tion­ally, a new law al­lows bal­lots with­out a post­mark to be counted, as long as they are re­ceived no later than a day af­ter Elec­tion Day.

Two dozen vot­ers and can­di­dates wor­ried about postal de­lays have asked a fed­eral court to ex­tend that dead­line to seven days.

Statewide, nearly 1.4 mil­lion peo­ple have re­quested an ab­sen­tee bal­lot so far, of­fi­cials said.

In New York City, elec­tions of­fi­cials are try­ing to en­sure a ma­jor mishap doesn’t wind up cost­ing peo­ple their vote. A print­ing er­ror meant that nearly 100,000 bal­lots ini­tially sent to gen­eral elec­tion vot­ers in the city dis­played the wrong names on bal­lot en­velopes.

Re­place­ment bal­lots were sent out, and of­fi­cials have promised that peo­ple who mailed back bal­lots in the mis­printed en­velopes will have a chance to cor­rect the prob­lem.

New York­ers can also vote early, in-per­son, this year be­tween Oct. 24 and Nov. 1. Marla Garfield, 46, of Brook­lyn, said she re­ceived her re­place­ment ab­sen­tee bal­lot quickly but plans to now drop off her bal­lot her­self dur­ing the early vot­ing pe­riod to make sure there are no is­sues.

“You just hope that they have a sys­tem in place for it to not be a prob­lem when we go vote,” she said.

Cost-cut­ting at the U.S. Postal Ser­vice has led to con­cerns that some bal­lots mailed close to the dead­line will be de­layed, but Kell­ner said he was “con­fi­dent that the post of­fice is tak­ing those obli­ga­tions se­ri­ously and do­ing what they rea­son­ably can to make sure that all elec­tion mail will be prop­erly and ef­fi­ciently pro­cessed.”

Un­like some other states, New York hasn’t ex­panded the use of bal­lot drop boxes be­side the usual lo­ca­tions found at vot­ing sites and lo­cal elec­tion of­fices.

Once the votes are in, lo­cal elec­tions boards face the chal­lenge of count­ing them. That process took weeks in some con­tests dur­ing the pri­mary. De­lays were com­pounded by in­suf­fi­cient staff and gen­eral in­ex­pe­ri­ence in han­dling so many mailed-in votes.

“But I don’t ex­pect that to be re­peated for the gen­eral elec­tion,” Kell­ner said. He said many boards have added staff and bought time-sav­ing equip­ment.

Onondaga County Elec­tionss Com­mis­sioner Dustin Czarnyy said nearly 50,000 out of thee 120,000 ab­sen­tee bal­lots hee ex­pects to get in the mail havee al­ready come in.

He’s still con­cerned with thee board’s abil­ity to af­ford all the ex-tra work needed to process thosee votes, say­ing they could use moree state fund­ing.

“We’re hav­ing to ba­si­cal­lyy throw money and bod­ies at thee sit­u­a­tion to try to help our­selves,”” Czarny said.

New York Board of Elec­tion Com­mis­sion­ers Rachel Bledi and Frank Bon­giorno sort through ab­sen­tee bal­lots this week. Of­fi­cials say they’ve solved most of the prob­lems that plagued state vot­ing dur­ing the pri­mary.

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