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Mail-in voting in New York

Last week, the New York Conservative and Republican parties filed a court challenge to the way New York’s absentee ballot system works. Under the New York Constitution, voters can request an absentee ballot if they are:

qualified voters who …may be absent from the county of their residence … or… who … may be unable to appear personally at the polling place because of illness or physical disability

At the outbreak of the pandemic, laws were passed that allowed New Yorkers to obtain an absentee ballot due to fear of getting exposed to COVID. Thus, voters were able to get absentee ballots more easily. That sensible option became a big problem for conservatives in New York.

New York is, after all, a “blue” state with the Democrats enjoying a significant voter enrollment edge. Anything that makes it easier to register and vote can put conservative candidates at an electoral disadvantage.

Yet, voters seemed to like the option. And it’s not unheard of in America. Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., offer "no-excuse" absentee voting, which means that any voter can request and cast an absentee/mail ballot, no excuse or reason necessary. Eight states conduct elections entirely by mail (California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington), which means voters do not need to request a ballot, and instead automatically receive one.

Like any other form of voting, mail-in voting has both pluses and minuses.

On the plus side: voter convenience and satisfaction. Public polling shows widespread support. A survey from Pew Research Center showed that 65% of voters support no-excuse absentee voting.

Also, there are financial savings. Jurisdictions may save money because more absentee/mail voting can reduce the need to staff and equip traditional polling places. A 2016 study of Colorado’s experience by the Pew Charitable Trusts found costs decreased an average of 40% in five election administration categories across 46 of Colorado’s 64 counties (those with available cost data) after it implemented all-mail ballot elections.

There are minuses as well. Sending ballots by mail increases printing costs for an election as well as an increase in voter “errors” or “residual votes.” When marking a ballot outside of an in-person voting location, a voter can potentially mark more selections in a contest than the maximum number allowed (called an overvote) or mark fewer than the maximum number allowed, including marking nothing for one or more contests (called an undervote).

But the big concern is the potential for coercion. If a voter is marking a ballot at home, and not in the presence of election officials, there may be more opportunity for coercion by family members or others. Yet, there have been few examples.

As the Pew survey found, in the states with a history of promoting mail-in voting, the public likes it. And in New York, during an unprecedented pandemic, allowing voters to send in their ballots through the mail (not to mention minimizing the COVID exposure of polling place workers) made a lot of sense.

Unfortunately, the option of making it easier to cast a ballot through the mail has been swept up in the Big Lie about elections in America – namely that the 2020 election was “stolen” and that our voting system is untrustworthy. Those claims are entirely without merit and yet, as any propogandist will tell you, if you recite the Big Lie enough times, it will gain some public support.

That support was evident in last year’s voting on whether to amend the state Constitution to allow easy mail in balloting. Despite the polls indicating public support, a multi-million-dollar campaign buried the proposal, leaving in place New York’s current system.

This year, the pandemic-related provision is once again in place. Thus, due to COVID, voters can obtain a mail-in ballot simply by requesting one. It is that provision that is under legal challenge. The plaintiffs have argued that since both the New York Governor and the President have stated that the COVID pandemic is behind us, the use of COVID as a legitimate absentee ballot excuse is illegal.

Despite the comments by the Governor and President, last week the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that people in Central New York mask in public due to a rise in COVID-19 levels. New York is averaging 25 deaths and more than 4,500 new cases each day as of early October. As the weather gets colder and people are more likely to be indoors, COVID is spreading, with nine counties in New York State are now at a high risk. And it will get worse.

We are by no means done with COVID. So, what should the absentee/mail-in voting policy be? That will be left up to the courts. Voting is a constitutional right, protecting voters from a serious illness should be a reasonable accommodation. Let’s hope the courts see it that way.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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