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Primary Results Won't Be Known For Days In New York During Challenging Election

Absentee ballot counting at the Albany County BOE.
WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
Absentee ballot counting at the Albany County BOE.

Today is one of the strangest primary elections in New York state history. In addition to in-person early voting, polls are open until 9 p.m. for presidential, Congressional, state legislature and local races. But more than 1.7 million New Yorkers requested a mail-in ballot due to the coronavirus pandemic — and ballots can be postmarked as late as today. John Conklin, public information officer for the New York State Board of Elections, tells WAMC’s Ian Pickus that it has been a challenging election to run.

Oh, I think it's absolutely had a very significant impact on this election from the rescheduling of other elections, elections that were taking place back in April that get rescheduled for tomorrow to the processing of absentee ballot applications, mailing them out receiving them back, at this point statewide. The county boards have received approximately 1.7 million absentee ballot applications for this election compared to the presidential primary from four years ago, where statewide they received 157,000 absentee applications in total, so you're talking about a factor of like 11 and a half times the number of absentee ballot applications that they would usually be processing. So doing that, at the same time when you're trying to make arrangements for early voting, have poll sites, have poll workers, moving a mountain of absentee applications, all while you're probably operating at some reduced level of staff, whether it's half or lower, because you've been told that you can't be at work because of COVID-19. It's had an astounding impact, I think on this election.

What do we know at this point about how many people took advantage of early voting?

92,000 and change is what showed up is the number of voters who showed up for the whole nine days.

Now polls are open from 6 to 9 on Tuesday. People can vote in person, right?


What should they know about that? Is that a normal process? Are there new restrictions in terms of where they can go and how they can go?

Well, again, there'll be some changes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. So if you're going to your local polls, you should bring your own PPE, if you have it at least a mask, please. If you don't, we will have it available for you. If for some reason you're not able to wear a mask, or you declined to wear a mask, for whatever reason, then the poll worker should send you to an isolated section of the poll site. They'll give you a ballot at that point, you'll be separated from the rest of the voters and the poll workers. So you can mark your ballot and then cast it and then leave. But there will also be the traditional observance of social distancing.

There should be a periodic time during the day when the equipment will be sanitized. So there might be some delay in processing voters because of that, I mean, if that's particular for that specific reason, I think voters will tolerate because it's in their best interest. But those are the kinds of things that they will they will encounter when they go to a poll site tomorrow. So like you said, the polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. You may want to just double check to make sure that there isn't hasn't been any consolidation of your traditional poll site. You can go to the state's website, which is www.elections.ny.gov. And in the center of the homepage, if you scroll down a little bit, you'll see a box that asks you, you know, find out where you're registered to vote and where your poll site is, if you click on that, then with a little bit of information will tell you where your poll site is specifically.

Now, if you requested an absentee ballot, and let's say it came Monday or even Tuesday, what's the deadline to get that into the mail?

You can still return it on Tuesday the 23rd, Election Day, which is a deviation from traditional practice; the legislature passed a law at the beginning of June to extend the deadline by one day. So you can still either return it by hand, or put it in the mail on the 23rd. And that will still be timely. The boards have processed, I believe, something close to 98% of all the applications they received, which is a huge amount, but that still leaves a small percentage that may or may not have been processed at the end. So they had a Herculean task under extremely trying circumstances, and I know they worked, you know, 12 and 15 hour days to try and process as many absentee applications as they could. But if you if you didn't get one, you can still go to the polls tomorrow, and we've tried every effort to make sure that it's minimal risk to go to the polls.

Here's the million dollar question for you. How long will it take to have results from this round of elections?

That is the million dollar question. So my advice to candidates, to the general public and the media is that we will not know winners tomorrow night. It may take one or two weeks at the outside to know winners, it could be longer. You know, it's difficult to, I mean, we've issued this many absentee ballots, 1.7 million. It’s actually slightly higher because there's more. There are places in the state where one application would result in you receiving two or three ballots. So there's more ballots that went out and applications, but we don't know what percentage of the turnout is in absentee ballots yet until after election day.

So if it's 50%, or 80%, those would be astronomical numbers that we've never experienced before. In terms of the turnout being in in paper versus on the machines, so the state board’s website will have election night results posted. It will only be for machine totals on election day and machine totals from early voting. But I can't tell you whether that represents 20% of the electorate, 30% of the electorate, 50% of the electorate and like you say, that's the million dollar question.

So, if you've ever observed an absentee ballot count, you know that it's a somewhat painstaking process to say the least. So that is what we will be doing after election day now by nature an absentee ballot. So it's postmarked at the latest tomorrow. It has seven days to come back to the board so it can arrive anytime between tomorrow and June 30 and that will be considered timely and it will be counted. But there was a change in the law because of early voting last year. So after election day, all the counties have to do a comparison between their affidavit and absentee ballots to make sure that no voter attempted to vote in more than one county.

That is scheduled to take place on July 1. So the counties will more than likely wait until July 1 before they begin to canvass ballots, because they'll want to know the results of that cross state comparison to make sure that they can go ahead and count all the ballots that they have, and that there's none that need to be disqualified because of a multi county voting voter. And the counties have to notify the local candidates and the local party leaders when they're going to start counting absentee ballots because they have the opportunity to be present and observe the process. And usually they bring their attorneys with them. And if the process begins where they start objecting to ballots, as opposed to observing the situation, then it could, it could get even slower. So I mean, I expect the counties will devote more than one team to the process, I would expect them to devote multiple teams. But it will still take some time before those ballots will get counted. So anyone attempting to declare a winner tomorrow night would be, I think, foolhardy.

Noted, and I will share that word with the newsroom. President Trump tweeted today because of mail-in ballots, 2020 will be the most rigged election in our nation's history. What can you say about the sanctity of this process, which is new for many New Yorkers?

There have historically been problems with mail-in ballots, particularly in this area. There was an issue in Rensselaer County a couple of years ago, there was an issue in Albany County years ago. You know, so there are problems with mail-in voting. Sometimes they are successful. I think we've done everything we can in the process to try and make them secure and transparent and accurate. So I think the voters should have faith in that. Typically, it's a bad actor doing something wrong. That that tends to have problems. But I mean, in the past, those people individually have been prosecuted. And, you know, there's been there's been a penalty to pay for doing those kinds of things.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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