In less than 84 days, polls will open statewide for the presidential election.
Election officials estimate that around 5 million New Yorkers could end up voting absentee in this year’s general election, but June’s primary heightened major flaws in the state’s absentee voting process.
“Too many New Yorkers saw their democracy fail them during this pandemic,” Senator Zellnor Myrie said during a legislative hearing. “Thousands of absentee ballots were discarded, many people had bad experiences at their polling sites. And for them, their democracy stopped in this pandemic.”
Lawmakers held a joint legislative hearing on Tuesday to examine what exactly went wrong in the June primary that left thousands of voters uncounted and what they can do to fix it before the November election.
But that window of time is quickly closing.
Election officials testified that it was almost impossible to keep up with all the changing executive orders leading up to the primary, a presidential primary that was canceled then reinstated, and the sheer volume of absentee ballots.
Usually only around 5-8 percent of New Yorkers vote absentee.
“Our election infrastructure in this state was built to have voters vote on voting machines,” Peter Kosinski, a commissioner for the New York State Board of Elections, explained during the hearing.
“When that equation is changed to 50 to 60 percent of our ballots on absentee ballots, which is a 10 to 12 times the normal number, it puts a tremendous burden on the system. One it was never really intended to support.”
If Governor Andrew Cuomo signs legislation allowing for COVID-19 to be used as a reason to vote absentee in the general election, officials expect the number of absentee ballots will be four times higher than it was for the primary.
This means cost for the general election will increase as well.
Election officials said that usually general elections cost around $20-25 million. This year, they expect it will cost closer to $50 million.
“We don’t have any money to implement the 52 laws you passed,” Robert Brehm, co-executive director of the New York State Board of Elections said to lawmakers. “We don’t have any use of the money that you gave us to build the online voter registration that’s been frozen by the Division of Budget.”
Lawmakers passed dozens of election reform bills this past legislative session, many aimed at ensuring more absentee ballots would be counted.
Legislation that would allow voters to “cure” minor ballot issues is still waiting for the governor’s signature.
The Board of Elections also decided to use a red x or red arrow to remind people to sign their absentee ballots, a big reason many ballots were invalidated.
But this will all cost money.
Republican lawmakers cast some criticism at their Democratic counterparts for passing bills that would expand absentee voting rather than first fixing the process.
“We all want fair and just access to the process,” Senator Rich Funke said. “But what those of us on this side of the aisle don’t support is a rushed and unproven process that exposes deep flaws in our system. And we know from the recent primary election that we have a lot of problems to address here. Instead of hitting the pause button on this, we passed more laws to allow more flawed ballots to count.”
Election officials also warned that many of the laws that were passed will be hard to implement so quickly and even harder to fund, saying other states had years to change their voting process.
“To enact the new absentee ballot program will take time,” Kosinski said. “More resources, more personnel, more funding, and more patience would help.”
Officials caution that getting results back from this year’s November election will take even longer than it did for the primary since there will be an increased number of absentee ballots to go through.