New York may permanently expand voting by mail — something it tried on a wide scale for the first time this year — while also trying to reform its molasses-slow and opaque process for counting absentee ballots.
A proposed constitutional amendment would do away with the rule limiting absentee voting to people who are ill, have a physical disability or will be out of town on Election Day.
The proposal cleared one round of legislative approval in 2019. Senate Elections Committee Chair Zellnor Myrie said he is optimistic it will pass a second required round as soon as January, which would clear the way for the amendment to be put before voters in a referendum as soon as next fall.
“I think absentee ballot voting is very much a part of New York’s voting culture now,” Myrie said.
The proposal has strong bipartisan support: In 2019 it passed 136-9 in the Assembly and 56-5 in the Senate. Supporters say the coronavirus pandemic has only generated more momentum.
If the amendment passes, it will be up to lawmakers to craft legislation improving a mail-voting system that was expanded in a hurry this year because of the pandemic, and has more than a few rough spots.
“It’s not an easy fix,” Myrie said.
Historically, New York has only allowed a small slice of the public to vote by mail. This year, though, Gov. Andrew Cuomo allowed anyone with a valid registration to vote absentee, rather than risk virus exposure at a polling site.
As a result, nearly 2 million people cast absentee ballots — more than 20 percent of total votes cast. That figure was praised by advocates of easy-access voting, but it also put enormous pressure on a tabulation system accustomed to handling only 4 percent of the vote in past elections.
More than three weeks after the last votes were cast, the results of some congressional and state legislative races remained unclear as votes continued to be tabulated.
And unlike Election Day results, which are released as they come in, some counties — and New York City’s Board of Elections — decided to keep their absentee counts a secret throughout the counting process.
If states like Pennsylvania had followed a similar path of waiting to release vote counts, the results of the presidential election might still not be known.
The Assembly’s top Republican, Will Barclay, said he supported mail-in voting, but said the state needs to help counties implement better systems.
“Clearly the boards of elections were overwhelmed and probably need resources to deal with the amount of absentee ballots,” he said.
Voting rights and good government advocacy groups have called on New York to allow no-excuse absentee voting for over a decade.
New York’s practice of waiting until a week after the election to even begin counting absentee ballots is another reason for delayed results. Many other states allow elections officials to count absentee ballots as they come in.
“The frustration New York voters may have seeing other states counting so quickly is very understandable,” Myrie said.
New York would start tallying absentee ballots on Election Day under legislation sponsored by Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat.
The bill would also seek to address one of the legal quirks behind the current delay in the start of the absentee counts.
New York is one of a handful of states — including Delaware and New Hampshire — that allow people who voted-by-mail to change their mind on Election Day, and vote again in person.
That leads to a cumbersome process in which election workers have to double-check every absentee ballot to make sure the voter didn’t also vote in person at a polling station. If they did, the absentee ballot is thrown out.
Under Gianaris’ bill, poll workers would instead do spot checks of records when someone attempts to cast a vote in person to see whether they were mailed an absentee ballot. If they were, those voters could only cast a vote by surrendering that absentee ballot or using a provisional affidavit ballot.
Democratic State Party Chair Jay Jacobs said doing away altogether with the option of overriding an absentee ballot would allow counting to start earlier. But Barclay, the Republican leader in the Assembly, said New York should keep letting voters react to last-minute twists.
Gianaris’ bill would also make it harder for candidates to win court orders halting or tweaking vote tallying. Those candidates would have to show convincing evidence of irregularities.
President Donald Trump attacked the integrity of the mail-in voting system for months, claiming without evidence that it is more susceptible to fraud.
Generally, far more Democrats than Republicans in New York opted to use the mail-in voting system in the past election. That has led to instances where Republican candidates with big leads on election night have seen those margins evaporate as absentee ballots are added to the total.