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NYS Absentee Ballot Counting Drags On

Poll workers wearing masks count ballots
Pat Bradley

In New York, absentee ballot counting is just getting underway in many counties, more than a week after Election Day. Because so many more people voted by mail, 8 close State Senate seats are undecided until the ballots are processed. It’s possible the new legislative session could begin in January before some of the races are decided.

There are around one million more ballots to count than in any previous year. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order allowing any registered voter to cast their ballot by mail this year.

State Senator Michael Gianaris, who is the Democratic Deputy Majority Leader, says despite the extra ballots it should not take this long to find out who won an election.

“If we were a swing state, we’d be in the middle of a national scandal right now,” Gianaris said.

Gianaris has introduced a bill that would speed things up. Elections officials would be allowed to process and verify the ballots as soon as they are received. And counting would begin at 6 p.m. on Election Day.

“We need to get our act together,” said Giannis, who said most other states start their counting processes much earlier.

There are some other obstacles to a quick count. New York is one of the few states that allows a person to vote by absentee ballot, then change their mind and show up to vote at the polls. It takes a while for elections officials to sort it all out and make sure that the person’s vote is only counted once.

Gianaris’ bill would end that practice. The first vote that is cast, whether by mail or in person, would be the one that counts.

Also, New York allows what’s known as a curing process, where voters who might have made a minor mistake on their mail-in ballot are contacted and given a chance to make corrections. 

There’s also a time honored tradition in New York where candidates in very close races hire specialized election attorneys to challenge the authenticity of the other side’s ballots. Those legal wrangles often end up before the courts and can delay outcomes for weeks or even months.

Gianaris, who is also head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, says republican lawyers are already raising numerous legal challenges in 8 Senate races that are still undecided.

“Republicans are making frivolous challenges all over the state,” Gianaris said.

Gianaris says some legal disputes have extended into February, leaving a district without representation during the first weeks of the new legislative session, and he’s concerned that will happen again this year.

Spokeswoman for the Senate Republicans, Candice Giove, said in a statement that because of the unprecedented number of mail-in ballots across the state “campaigns from both parties are taking action to preserve the integrity of elections by examining these ballots.” She says when this “routine” process ends, the courts will review the objections on both sides and “ensure that all legal votes are counted.”  

Jennifer Wilson, with the League of Women Voters, says it’s important that every ballot be carefully counted. She says there are pros and cons to counting faster, versus waiting to begin the count.

“The pro is, we’re going to make sure we count correctly and not miscount anyone’s vote,” Wilson said.

She say the downside is everyone has to wait a while for the results.

“Sometimes, I think waiting is better to make sure that no voter is being disenfranchised because we are rushing to get the count done,” Wilson said.   

But she says the process should not drag into the New Year.

New York’s deadline for legally certifying the vote is December 7. She says she hopes the counting and all legal challenges can be wrapped up by then.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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