Last week, New York State held its primary elections. What made this election unique was that it took place during the coronavirus pandemic. As a result of a gubernatorial decree, all eligible New York voters received paperwork that allowed them to request an absentee ballot due to the possibility of infection from the virus.
As a result, 1.7 million New Yorkers requested a ballot, more than ten times the number requested in 2016, the last year for a presidential primary.
So how did New York’s first effort at mail-in voting go? Not great.
The timetable for getting the absentee applications submitted was too ambitious. New York voters had to have their absentee ballot request in the mail no later than June 16th for an election on June 23rd. The tight timeline created difficulties for both the postal service to deliver the mail and the boards of elections to process those requests and get ballots back out the door in time for voters to cast and mail their ballots in time. The single biggest complaint from voters was that they did not receive their ballots in time and thus had to go to the polling place to cast their vote – exactly what they were trying to avoid in the first place.
The compressed timetable and the significant added workload from the absentee ballot requests also highlighted some of the biggest flaws in New York’s elections system that existed pre-pandemic.
Every year, boards of elections have to recruit, train, and deploy poll workers to cover every polling place. It is always difficult and there can be shortages. When there aren’t enough poll workers, the number of available polling places must be reduced.
And who are these poll workers? Poll workers must dedicate an entire day to watching the polls, checking voters in, and dealing with whatever snafus develop. It’s a long day and while poll workers are paid, they are not paid a lot. Who has the time to spend all day at a polling site? Usually older adults, often retirees. And who is most at risk in the pandemic?
You got it, that same group.
Not only is mail-in voting a way to protect voters, but it reduces the workload for poll workers – thus reducing their risk – and reduces the need for polling places as well.
Clearly, New York has to get better at it. This Fall’s Presidential General Election is going to have an even higher turnout than the primaries last week. The State Legislature should hold hearings to see what can be done to make the system work better.
There are, however, some obvious lessons.
1. Requests for an absentee ballot should be earlier in order to give adequate time for the ballot to make it to voters.
2. Allow voters to track their ballots – in the same way as mail delivery purchases are tracked now. Then, if the ballot is late – or missing – voters will have time to make alternative plans, such as going to the polling place during the early voting period or on Election Day itself. The state of California has such as system.
3. Create adequate numbers of polling sites. The city of White Plains in Westchester County, for example, (with a population of 60,000) was reported to have only two polling places.
4. Overhaul the way in which poll workers are recruited and trained. There were reports across the state of polling places opening late, of poll workers not giving out the complete two-page ballot, and voters being sent to the wrong polling place.
5. Boost transparency by requiring reporting that allows everyone to know how many absentees were requested, how many were mailed out, and how many votes cast through the mail.
6. Increase funding of elections. Voting is the cornerstone of our representative democracy, it should be funded to ensure that elections are run smoothly.
7. Longer term, New York should join the states of Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Utah in running all of their elections by mail.
8. Ultimately, New York should get rid of an elections system run by the two major political parties. The state Constitution requires that the board of elections be run by the two major political parties, but it does not require that the staff must be chosen due to their party registration.
The short-term steps should be taken now, in time for the general election this November. Forewarned is forearmed.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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