Campaigns & Elections

What to know about absentee voting for the June 23 primary

New York may not be closing polling sites, but it’s still preparing for a vastly different election than ever before.

COVID-19 has completely changed the way New Yorkers will vote in June.

COVID-19 has completely changed the way New Yorkers will vote in June. Mary at T-Comms/Shutterstock

The coronavirus pandemic has upended all aspects of normal life in New York, not least among them elections. After first being postponed, the state Board of Elections canceled the Democratic presidential primary now that former Vice President Joe Biden has become the presumptive nominee. Gov. Andrew Cuomo canceled nearly all special elections that were set for June 23, but that day’s regularly scheduled state and federal primaries will still take place across New York.

Polling places in districts with races on the ballot will be open. But Cuomo also expanded absentee voting in order to minimize the number of people at polling sites for the safety of both voters and poll workers. Here’s what you need to know about remote voting in New York.

Do I need to apply for an absentee ballot?

In order to vote by mail, voters must still fill out and submit an application to receive an absentee ballot. Although the governor had considered automatically sending a ballot to all registered voters in the state, his administration determined doing so would violate the state constitution. Instead, an April 24 executive order mandated that every registered voter in the state receive an absentee ballot application, with postage, to ensure that everyone who may wish to vote remotely has the opportunity. Interested voters would fill out the form, and mail it back to their local board of elections.

Originally, state Republican Party Chairman Nick Langworthy opposed a move to directly send absentee ballots to every voter in the state. However, while still generally against expanded mail-in voting, Langworthy said in a statement that he “would support a mailed absentee ballot program that allows for greater public health protections during the COVID-19 crisis.”

People can also print out an application online or apply digitally by emailing the completed form to the local board of elections. However, proactively mailing the application helps resolve potential roadblocks like lack of access to a computer or the internet. Receiving an application in the mail could also alert voters who have never used an absentee ballot before that they have the option to vote remotely.

Aren’t there specific criteria you have to meet in order to qualify for an absentee ballot?

Yes, and technically this is still true. Implementing a system where any person can receive a mail-in ballot for any reason, or where the state automatically sends ballots to voters, would first require a state constitutional amendment. However, Cuomo through an April 9 executive order expanded the definition of a “temporary illness,” one of the reasons for which someone could request an absentee ballot, to include “the potential for contraction of the COVID-19 virus.” This effectively makes everyone in the state eligible for an absentee ballot. This executive order only applies to elections held on or before June 23, so a new order would be needed if the coronavirus pandemic is still an issue in November.

Will polling places still be open?

Unlike in Ohio, which canceled nearly all in-person voting in favor of voting by mail, all polling sites in districts with elections will still open, as of publication time. While the expanded absentee voting and mailing of applications is meant to minimize in-person voting, Cuomo said he does not intend to hold an entirely mail-in election. “We’re saying you have both options,” Cuomo said at an April 24 press conference.

The good-government group Common Cause New York previously expressed opposition to the cancellation of in-person voting, which at one point seemed like a possibility. The group’s Executive Director Susan Lerner said that a mandatory vote-by-mail system would put enormous strain on unprepared boards of elections and would disenfranchise voters with disabilities by removing accessible ballot options like braille or large print. She also cited the state’s history of inaccurately purging its voter rolls as another reason the state should not move to compulsory mail-in voting on such short notice.

After the governor made it clear that he would not cancel in-person voting and will instead send absentee ballot applications to all active and inactive voters, Common Cause New York’s Deputy Director Sarah Goff told City & State that Cuomo’s action served as a good compromise that ensures voters have options. However, she said the group still has concerns about the ability of boards of elections to handle an expected influx of absentee ballot applications. “In a resource-strapped environment, unless there is some kind of supportive funding to counties that comes with it, this will be an unfunded mandate when counties are facing (billions) in cuts to the aids to localities budget,” Goff said.

Is there a precedent for this?

There is very little precedence for setting up any kind of mail-in voting system on such short notice. Ohio, which quickly implemented voting by mail with very limited in-person voting for its presidential primary, is being treated as a national test case. However, the state has faced some problems getting absentee ballots to everyone who requested one, and there is a chance that thousands of voters won’t receive one in time to cast a vote remotely.

Three other states – Hawaii, Wyoming and Alaska – have also canceled in-person voting for their presidential primaries, but have not received as much attention as Ohio. Hawaii was already one of five states where residents vote by mail as the default, meaning all registered voters automatically receive ballots sent to their homes each election. This likely made closing polling sites a less daunting task. Both Alaska and Wyoming had also already allowed no-excuse absentee voting and pushed back their election and caucus dates in order to extend the mail-in voting period.

In many ways, New York is less prepared than the majority of other states to handle even expanded absentee voting because it’s one of only 16 states that requires a voter to have a reason to request an absentee ballot. The state’s voting system has been ranked among the worst in the country. 29 states permit mail-in voting for all residents, and even those states don’t have the infrastructure to handle an influx of new absentee requests. For example, Wisconsin election workers, a state that allows for no-excuse absentee voting unlike New York, were overwhelmed by the number of applications they received in a last-minute attempt to expand mail-in voting without delaying its presidential primary or closing poll sites. Wisconsin’s primary has been held up as an example of what not to do during an election amid the coronavirus pandemic.

New York still has two months before its primary elections, hopefully enough time to avoid a repeat of Wisconsin. And canceling the Democratic presidential primary likely will reduce the strain on the state and local boards of elections, according to state Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs. But even two months is not a ton of time to massively ramp up absentee voting. Cuomo has not said what the state is doing to prepare or aid counties, both to mail out applications to all voters and to receive what will likely be more requests than election officials have ever handled before.