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Lawmakers ask Board of Elections if they are ready for November 

The June 23 primary was the first in New York to allow all voters the option of casting their ballots by mail. Under an executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, registered voters could cite the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason for filling out an absentee ballot.

The New York State Legislature held a hearing Tuesday on the primary elections to find out what went right and what went wrong.

About 50% to 60% of voters took advantage of voting by mail -- 10 to 12 times more than in previous elections -- and boards of elections had to scale up their systems quickly.

State Senate Elections Committee Chair Zellnor Myrie said while the process went well for most voters, there were some problems. Some people did not receive their absentee ballots in time, or the ballots weren't able to be properly postmarked by the deadline. In some races, it was weeks before all ballots were counted and results were known. 

“Too many New Yorkers saw their democracy fail them during this pandemic,” Myrie said.  

The state Board of Elections is governed jointly by Democratic and Republican appointees. Commissioner Peter Kosinski, a Republican, testified that other states that transitioned to mail-in voting had years to ease into the process. He warned of a “tremendous burden” to the system in November, when millions more voters are expected to cast their ballots, many of whom might do so by mail. 

“It means that the post office will be our partner in administering elections,” Kosinski said. “A significant portion of our elections will be administered by an entity over which the Board of Elections have no control.” 

President Donald Trump’s appointee as postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, has slowed down deliveries by eliminating overtime and urging carriers to hold mail until the next day if they are running late. Democrats have accused the White House of “sabotaging” the mail delivery system before the fall elections, something DeJoy denies. 

Kosinski said elections boards will need more money to handle the expected increased volume of mail-in ballots. He said the $20 million in supplemental funding from the federal government and $4 million from the state have largely been spent.

Robert Brehm, a co-executive director of the board, said elections have been held before in times of crisis, including in the aftermath of hurricanes Irene, Lee and Sandy, and Sept. 11, but he said the COVID-19 pandemic presents even more logistical challenges.

Brehm, who is a Democrat, said any additional funding or changes to the voting laws need to happen soon, with the first ballots for members of the military to vote in the fall elections going out in just 38 days.

Cuomo has not yet extended the executive order to allow the pandemic as a reason for absentee balloting in November. 

A coalition of government reform groups is urging lawmakers to make more changes before November. The Senate and Assembly in June approved several measures. Those include giving voters the opportunity to fix mistakes -- such as failing to sign in the right place or not properly sealing the envelope -- on their absentee ballots before Election Day. Another measure allows elections boards to start counting absentee ballots up to 30 days before in-person voting instead of waiting until after the polls close on Election Day. The bills have been sent to Cuomo for his approval. 

Crisanta Duran, the former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives who is now a voting rights advocate, said New York should set up ballot drop boxes. They're used in her state and several others to ease the burden on the postal service. 

“Drop boxes are safe and secure,” said Duran, who added special efforts were made in her state to place the drop boxes in communities of color and other areas where voters have traditionally been disenfranchised. 

A bill to create ballot drop boxes is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Brad Hoylman, and a spokesman for Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said it is being “seriously” considered. 

State Board of Elections Commissioner Douglas Kellner, a Democrat, said a form of drop box that voters can use at all polling sites already exists. 

“Voters can deliver their absentee ballots to any early voting site or to any Election Day poll site as an alternative to using the mail,” Kellner said. 

The Board of Elections commissioners said there will be the same number of polling places open on Election Day as in past years. And they say New York’s early voting option for several days before Nov. 3 is “underutilized” and could perhaps provide a safer, less crowded alternative to voting on Election Day.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.