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New York Advocates Want Changes To Elections During Pandemic Permanent

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WAMC photo by Patrick Garrett

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order this week allowing all New Yorkers to participate in the June 23rd primary via absentee ballot. Advocates want state leaders to take things even further to protect voters in the future.

It wasa stunning visual after weeks of hearing how important social distancing is: millions of Wisconsin voters this week were forced to wait in line to cast their ballots after the state’s Supreme Court on Monday blocked an executive order from Democratic Governor Tony Evers to delay in-person voting during the pandemic.

Also Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 decision, struck down a one-week absentee ballot extension.  

With volunteer poll workers in short supply combined with efforts to limit the number of polling sites to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, the number of places people could vote was dramatically reduced.

Common Cause Wisconsin director Jay Heck said in Milwaukee, the number of polling sites was reduced from 180 to five.

“It was as horror. It was a beautiful sunny day across Wisconsin, the first nice day, in arguably, five months…but the sight of people being out in shorts and t-shirts with masks on and with bandanas, trying to stand 5 feet apart…”

Heck said during the online press conference Friday afternoon that thousands of votes by mail received after Election Day won’t be counted, and that demand for ballots-by-mail was so high, many who may have wanted to vote absentee never got a ballot in the first place.

Common Cause wants to make sure what happened in Wisconsin doesn’t happen in New York.

Deputy Director of Common Cause NY Sarah Goff says New York should expand early voting from 9 to 18 days, and increase access to absentee ballots, but also ensure voters who choose to cast ballots in person can do so.

“With more time to vote and additional poll sites, we’re confident that we can disperse voters, reduce density, protect public health, and meet the goal of holding our elections safely and securely,” said Goff.

Governor Andrew Cuomo last month signed an executive order moving the April 28th Democratic presidential primary to coincide with the state legislative and congressional primaries on June 23rd.

This week, the Democrat also signed an executive order allowing all New Yorkers to vote in the June 23rd Primary to be given the option to vote absentee, by including a pandemic illness in the allowable excuses to obtain a ballot. New Yorkers can also request an absentee ballot via email, instead of in person or by a signed application.

Democratic Onondaga County Elections Commissioner Dustin Czarny welcomes the governor’s executive order expanding absentee ballot access.

“And while that will solve the problem in the short-term, there will still be a lot of confusion on the ground. As people are requesting absentee ballots, they may wanting to request them for November as well,” said Czarny.

To clear confusion and to ensure safety during future elections, Czarny says it’s up to the state legislature to codify the temporary changes to ballot access.

Czarny, who also serves as the Democratic Caucus Chair for the New York State Elections Commissioners Association, says Republicans and Democrats in the association support two bills in the state legislature, one to allow online applications for ballots and another to allow voting-by-mail during a pandemic.

“Our association, the New York State Elections Commissioners Association, voted overwhelmingly to support these two pieces of legislation so we could then move forward, because we are getting more than double, more than triple the types of requests that we usually get,” said Czarny.

With the state capitol in Albany nearly empty and closed to visitors, but with two months left in the regular session, Sarah Goff says it’s now up lawmakers to take up the bills.

“They have the technology, they have the tools, and they can continue to keep working remotely,” said Goff.

Appearing on WAMC Northeast Public Radio Thursday, Cuomo was asked by host Alan Chartock if he would consider supporting extending the changes for the June primary to future elections.

“It’s a good question. And I think a lot of the things that we’re doing now may lead to a different pattern going forward,” said Cuomo.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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