By Blake Vaisey
To say that New York’s primary election season this summer didn’t go well would be an understatement. Starting with a failed attempt to cancel the state presidential primary, the state faced a slew of issues regarding a huge influx of absentee ballot requests, an increase of 655% since the 2018 general election. Thousands of ballots were disqualified due to the state’s requirements for absentee ballots, with issues such as missing a dated postmark or misplaced signatures being the main causes of ballots being disqualified. Even issues outside of the control of the voter, such as damage caused by the post office, could result in the ballot being disqualified. These issues were compounded by the fact that a reported 34,000 absentee ballots were not mailed out to voters until one day before the primary.
These issues, which mainly affected New York City residents, potentially had a huge effect on the primary contests taking place and resulted in at least one lawsuit. That lawsuit, League of Women Voters of the United States et al v. Kosinski et al, claimed that the mass rejection of absentee ballots in New York, the highest rate in the country, was an act of massive unconstitutional disenfranchisement that must be corrected.
New York has taken steps to correct these issues in the weeks following the primary elections, especially with the looming specter of the general presidential election coming in November. These corrections started with a slew of election law bills signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo in August. One bill hopes to correct some of the issues caused by the increased absentee ballot demand by extending the period in which absentee ballots can be requested, hopefully spreading the load across more time and giving county boards of elections time to handle the requests. Another extends the latest possible postmark date for a ballot to be accepted to the day of the election itself, and the third opens up the accepted reasons for requesting an absentee ballot to include risk of virus exposure.
Yet another bill, signed by Governor Cuomo on August 21st, creates a requirement for local boards of elections to inform absentee ballot voters of clerical issues with their ballots. The voters will then be given the opportunity to correct the issue and have their vote counted. A settlement reached in the aforementioned League of Women Voters case further expands on the new law, laying out how county boards of elections will get in touch with voters whose ballots have issues and how voters will be able to correct them. It further includes a list of clerical issues that will not require correction at all, including signatures being in the wrong place on the absentee ballot and the use of pencil, both of which would previously have resulted in a disqualified ballot.
While these efforts are laudable, it remains to be seen whether they will be enough. The primary election that caused such issues this summer had a total of just under 1.2 million voters in New York, not including the potentially thousands of disqualified votes. The most recent Presidential election in 2016 had a total of 7.7 million voters in New York. With the coronavirus pandemic still ongoing and a national push to vote absentee, New York could be facing potentially hundreds of thousands more absentee ballots in the general election. Without a significant increase in man-power and funding, it seems likely that New York’s election infrastructure may once more be overwhelmed in the weeks following Election Day.