Following a chaotic June 23 primary count in which more than 84,000 mail-in ballots were invalidated, some lawmakers are pushing for new options for voters who want to avoid polling places.
Following a chaotic June 23 primary count in which more than 84,000 mail-in ballotswere invalidated, legislators across the state have held multiple hearings and passed legislation aimed at avoiding similar pitfalls during November’s general election. But advocates and some legislators believe there’s more to be done to give voters as many options as possible on election day.
On August 20, Governor Cuomo signed a bill introduced by Senator Alessandra Biaggi permitting Covid as an acceptable excuse for requesting an absentee ballot, an order that is valid through 2022. The governor also signed bills authorizing voters to request absentee ballots in August, rather than closer to the election day, and permitting ballots to be postmarked up to the day of the election on November 3rd. Thousands of ballots in the June 23 primary were invalidated for arriving after election day and not being postmarked by the USPS.
And on August 24th, the governor signed an executive order requiring county boards of election to send mailings informing voters of deadlines by September 8, count votes faster and update the state board of elections on outstanding staffing needs. The order also requires boards of election to let voters request ballots by phone or internet.
But some voting rights advocates and elected officials are looking to expand the options for voters. Fearing unprecedented service reductions in the USPS could impact the election, and looking to reduce crowds at polling sites, they have suggested secure ballot drop-boxes in public locations, a strategy used to other states.
Ahead of an August 11 state senate hearing on voting during the pandemic, State Senator Brad Hoylman introduced a bill that would allow county Boards of Election to establish drop-boxes for absentee ballots across the state. As it stands, absentee ballots can be sent by mail or dropped at polling places and early voting sites up to November 3rd.
Drop-boxes have been used for years in states where mail-in voting is a more widespread option, including Washington and Oregon. The pandemic has led to an expansion of the practice in other states, including in Connecticut, which rolled out drop boxes ahead of its primary election by using federal CARES Act funds.
“As a general matter, drop-boxes are understood to be common-sense, thoughtful ways to meet voters’ needs,” Myrna Peréz, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights Project, told City Limits. “In a number of states, drop-boxes are a common sense and economical way of handling the issue of not wanting people to travel far to be able to cast their ballot.”
But Peréz says that they are not necessarily always a better option than traditional ballots.
“Where the rubber hits the road is, what are the trade-offs? Having a drop-box in lieu of polling place may not provide voters the same level of customer service,” she says, citing language assistance, as well as technical features of ballot machines that tell voters if they filled their ballot out incorrectly.
At the August 11 hearing, the city’s Board of Elections said it planned to implement its own “drop box” plan in November. “In effect we already have a drop-box program, in that voters can deliver their absentee ballots to any early voting site or to any election day poll site as an alternative to using the mail,” Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the NYC Board of Elections said at the hearing.
In further questioning he clarified that the plan is to keep the box at the information table outside the polling room. “We’re trying to keep the number of folks to a minimum at the inside of the poll site room if they don’t have to be in there,” Ryan said.
Hoylman, speaking to City Limits, said that this does not quite go far enough, and said that the state should have hundreds and possibly thousands of additional drop boxes to encompass the increased need.
The senator cited federal guidance provided by the federal Election Assistance Commission that recommends one drop box per 15,000 to 20,000 registered voters. As of this February, the New York State Board of Elections counted nearly 13 million registered voters across the state, which would amount to about 645 to 860 drop boxes, were the state to use the aforementioned formula.
Hoylman says NYC Board of Elections’ solution doesn’t satisfy the statewide need. “This is a statewide issue. This doesn’t go to the heart of the need to have more places that serve as receptacles for ballots, and we don’t want people to go indoors if they’re a senior or immuno-compromised,” he says.
Peréz says the idea behind Hoylman’s bill makes sense, as the state should introduce as many methods of voting as possible to encourage voting during a pandemic.
“Voters need as many options as possible, “ Peréz says. “We are in a once-in-a-century pandemic. People have different risk factors.”