To reduce transmission of the coronavirus through in-person voting, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made everyone in New York eligible for an absentee ballot in the upcoming June 23 primary, and mandated that applications for those ballots be sent to all registered voters with contested elections in their districts.
This will likely create an unprecedented influx of absentee votes and strain an election system that has long relied almost entirely on in-person voting and only has weeks to prepare for the sudden change. Abruptly introducing a new voting method may have unknown impacts on the voters and candidates alike as they wade into unchartered waters in the middle of a pandemic. To help make sense of what to expect as June draws nearer, City & State reached out to four experts on voting, elections and politics to provide some insight: Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, Bruce Gyory, Democratic political consultant and senior advisor at Manatt Phelps and Phillips LLP, Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center's Voting Rights and Elections Program and Dr. Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
How prepared is New York to switch to a largely mail-in voting format?
Susan Lerner: A successful vote-by-mail program is dependent on the accuracy of the voter file. We do not believe that the 58 Boards of Election (BOEs) have maintained up-to-date voter rolls. For example, in 2016, thousands of active Democratic voters in Brooklyn were improperly moved to inactive status. If New York were to hastily institute a vote by mail system, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers might never receive a ballot. States with vote by mail have spent years building up the infrastructure to sustain it, from updating their voter rolls, to setting up secure dropoff locations, to creating protocols to compile and count every ballot. However, we are prepared to handle an expanded absentee ballot program, like the one authorized by the governor and it’s a good stop gap measure on the way to eventual vote by mail.
Bruce Gyory: In fairness to the Boards of Elections, no one can expect them to be prepared now for this onslaught of expanded absentee voting. This will be a challenge to them to work out the kinks in the June 23 primaries, so that they are ready for the general election in November. We can’t be sure that the Coronavirus crisis will be fully past us by November. So absentee voting may be a staple for the general election as well as this primary. This will test the Board of Elections’ ability to handle high volume on the run which will in turn call for nimble creativity.
I have one suggestion from the cheap seats. There will be lots of computer savvy unemployed college students looking for work this summer and perhaps the fall. So the Boards of Elections might want to consider finding a way to hire them for short term work for both the preparation and counting challenges. This will be pure logistics. Unemployed veterans could be another source of tech savvy labor for the Boards of Elections and let’s remember that the veterans have experience in logistics.
Myrna Pérez: New York, like all other states, has a way to go. But they do have time and should work really hard to put ourselves in the best position to succeed. We are a state that really utilizes our polling places, which is a good thing in general. It’s good that people know their neighborhoods and know their precincts and they know where to go. But the shift to expanded mail voting is going to require us to move differently, and move further, than other states that already have really high mail-voting practices. I believe that with the right kind of commitment and the right kind of political will and the right kind of resources, a lot can be done.
Christina Greer: Was it New York that was complaining that they didn’t have enough eveloples? I don’t understand how you say you don’t have enough envelopes. It’s our democracy, you’re the Board of Elections. Get the envelopes! One would think they started preplanning when all this COVID stuff started happening in March. So the envelopes question alone makes me nervous about the effectiveness and the preparedness of a June election.
Given all the circumstances now, how might the change affect overall voter turnout?
Susan Lerner: It’s not about turnout, it’s about making voting more accessible for New Yorkers. Expanded absentee, as well as early voting and on Election Day, will allow voters to cast their ballots safely, securely and on their own schedules.
Bruce Gyory: We simply do not have an empirical template from which to project turnout for a presidential primary that is not contested but will have the mail-in option. If Wisconsin and Ohio primaries are any guide, the write-in option could lead to higher rates of primary voting than we imagine. In a hotly contested presidential primary, we could project a statewide turnout of 2.1 million to 2.3 million or more. In a ho-hum primary where the nomination has been won by the time the race comes to NYS, like in 2004 for John Kerry, the statewide turnout could be under 750,000. This year no one knows. But the mail-in option, plus the relatively large number of hotly contested legislative primary races for Congress and the state Assembly, leave me with a hunch that statewide (turn out) could approach or cross 1 million. The prudent analysis would be for a middling turnout in the 800,000-900,000 range. But, to repeat, no one knows with any certainty.
Myrna Pérez: It is too early to tell because there are too many different factors at play. On one hand, we have a pandemic that is causing extreme disruption to people’s lives. On the other hand, people really care about their right to vote and are really concerned that the pandemic will impede their right to vote. For members of the public, that will inspire and activate them to turn out.
Christina Greer: We have to account for the fact that any time we introduce something new into the voting sphere, we risk losing voters just because of confusion and misinformation. We know traditionally, turnout is pretty low in June. I am hoping that since so many people are at home, that they will actually fill out the ballot.
Who, if anyone, stands to benefit from expanded absentee voting during a primary?
Susan Lerner: Everyone! That said, we also need to maintain in-person voting options for people with disabilities, those who need language assistance, and for everyone else who might just want or need to vote in person. We can do safe in-person voting by doubling early voting days from 9 to 18 as a way to disperse crowds and comply with CDC guidelines for early voting and Election Day locations.
Bruce Gyory: Democratic primaries historically are not kind to the pure progressive candidates. Low-turnout primaries maximize the consistent voting patterns of that progressive base which is roughly a third of the statewide vote. That trend goes back a long way, but has been most pronounced from 2016 onwards. The incline facing the pure progressive candidates will increase because they usually benefit (from) an army of young volunteers who can knock on doors all day and most of the night. This year door-knocking will be out, in the throes of this pandemic. So the challenge with mail voting will be which candidates can use direct mail, phone banking and social networking to bank large numbers of absentee (votes) cast by mail. Only one of those techniques (social networking) favors the progressives. In reality, those with labor endorsements will have a big leg up in terms of reaching out to voters for banking those mail in absentee votes.
Once the turnout (has) been set, the hallmark of the winning campaigns is likely to be creative efficiency in terms of making the voter contacts that produce a critical mass of absentee votes. I would bet a lot of people are asking Rep. Greg Meeks, the Queens county leader, what techniques he used to help engineer Melinda Katz win the recount for Queens DA, due to a landslide among absentee ballots.
Myrna Pérez: This is not an ordinary primary – this is a primary during an international pandemic with shelter-at-home instructions. And as such, voters stand to benefit from expanded access to expanded access to absentee voting because that will allow people to make the choice of how to best keep themselves and their families safe without sacrificing their fundamental right to vote.
Christina Greer: I would always say incumbents, just because they have a built-in base that they can remind. Challengers don’t yet have a base, so they’re kind of reminding everyone to vote. But they don’t necessarily have targeted individuals that they can contact to have them turnout the ballot.
Is there reason for concern about potential disenfranchisement or voter fraud?
Susan Lerner: No, definitely not. Voters need to know that if they’re mailing in their ballot, it will count. New York has one of the highest absentee ballot rejection rates in the country at 13.6% compared to the national average of 1.4%. That’s because political opponents will often object to stray marks and signatures as a way to invalidate ballots. Lawmakers need to resume remote session to pass legislation that would end this gamesmanship.
Bruce Gyrory: I see no reason to fear that absentee ballots will lead to voter fraud. Disenfranchisement will come only if distinct blocs of voters choose not to vote absentee while also not voting in person due to legitimate fears, while other blocs more fully vote by mail. Let’s hope not. The vote-by-mail states, mostly out in the Western states, have not had a problem with voter fraud. Let’s hope that is New York’s experience
Myrna Pérez: We should always be concerned about barriers in front of the ballot box. And in this instance, we have the additional barrier of the disruption caused by the coronavirus and the confusion caused by the changes that have resulted because of the coronavirus. My hope is that there will be sufficient voter outreach and education to overcome those challenges.
Christina Greer: Always disenfranchisement, just because, I believe, postage will be paid for, but some people really rely on poll workers for assistance with the ballot. And that service is not provided. As far as voter fraud, sure, I guess there’s someone stealing a ballot is always a possibility. We don’t really have an issue with voter fraud, rampant voter fraud. We have a real issue with voter disengagement. I’d be more concerned about that over voter fraud.
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