There are fewer than two months until Election Day – an election that will impact the history of this nation and the world. In New York, due to the disruption created by the pandemic, voters will be casting their ballots in an unfamiliar system, one that has been constantly changing. A new wrinkle was added last week.
Last week, Governor Cuomo unveiled a new option for voters that will allow them to request an absentee ballot online, instead of through the mail. It underscored just how much voting in New York has changed since the last Presidential election.
Given those changes, here is an outline of the options for voting in New York.
First, check to make sure that you are registered. The New York State Board of Elections has a tool to allow voters to verify their polling site and to ensure that they are registered in the first place. (It’s tricky to find, so the web address is https://voterlookup.elections.ny.gov/.) You can also contact your county board of elections to ensure that you are registered.
If you are not, you can register through the State Board of Elections online or you can call to obtain a voter registration form, 1-800-FOR-VOTE. If you are not registered to vote, you must do so (either online, through the mail, or dropping your form off at the relevant county board of election) by October 9th. Don’t put this off as it is a hard deadline.
Once you are registered – or confirmed your registration – you have two choices on how to vote. You can do so by going in-person to a polling site or you can vote through the mail.
If you prefer to vote in-person, once again you have two choices. For the first time in a Presidential Election, New York allows voters to vote early. Under New York law, voters can cast their ballots starting 10 days prior to Election Day. This year, the early voting period is October 24th through November 1st. Every county must have at least one early voting polling place. You can find out where yours is by checking out your local county board of elections. Of course, voters can still go to the polls on Election Day, Tuesday November 3rd, and cast their ballot like in the old days. As with all our public activities these days, when going to their polling place to vote, voters should wear a protective facial mask and socially distance.
In addition to allowing early voting, New York now allows eligible New Yorkers to vote by mail. This option is a bit more complicated. The New York State Constitution allows only in-person voting unless a voter is ill or is expected to be traveling. If a voter wants to cast an absentee ballot, they must apply. Once their application is accepted, they receive a hard-copy ballot through the mail and can then complete the ballot and mail their vote in.
Due to the raging COVID-19 pandemic, the Governor and the State Legislature made changes to the constitutional provision allowing voters to cast their ballot under the illness exception—even if not actually sick.
The change allows voters to choose this option if they wish to avoid contact with other people by checking off the “temporary illness or disability” excuse on the absentee ballot application since voting in-person may put the voter at risk of contracting or spreading a communicable disease like COVID-19. Last week’s order by the Governor, allows voters to request an absentee ballot application online. If voters wish to receive an absentee application directly, they can request it from their local county board of elections. More information to do so is available at the State Board of Elections website. The voter must apply online, postmark, email or fax a completed application or letter request for the General Election absentee ballot no later than 7 days (October 27th) before the election. Voters may apply in-person up to the day before the election (November 2nd).
Once a voter’s absentee application is accepted, they can then vote. The voter fills out the ballot, places it in a security envelope – which also needs the voter’s signature. The security envelope is then placed in the return envelope. The voter then mails it (postmarked no later than November 3rd) or brings it to the relevant county board of elections (no later than November 3rd by 9 p.m.) or drops it off at a polling site during either the early voting period or on Election Day (November 3rd by 9 p.m.).
With more options, voters have more opportunities to participate. We live in a representative democracy – one in which we choose our representatives to decide for us the important issues of the day. Voting is how we make our wishes known. This year, we should vote as if our lives – and the lives of our families and communities – depended on it, because it does.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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