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County Makes Preparations For Upcoming Elections

Chautauqua County’s election commissioners said they are preparing for the state’s June 23 primary election while keeping an eye on this year’s general election in November. P-J file photo by Dennis Phillips

The Chautauqua County Board of Elections is prepared to make any necessary changes for the upcoming Democratic presidential primary scheduled for June 23, but is currently waiting for more direction from Albany.

Norm Green, county Democratic election commissioner, said the state budget includes new stipulations for the primary, which will not be held if all candidates have suspended their campaigns.

“As it stands right now we passed a law within the (state) budget that said if all candidates have suspended their campaigns we won’t have a primary,” Green said. “It is up to the state Board of Elections, which will be meeting at the end of the month, it’s up to the state Board of Elections to determine if all candidates have suspended their campaigns. At this point in time we are moving ahead as though we are having an election.”

Should the Democratic commissioners at the state level determine that all campaigns have been suspended, Joe Biden would likely be the state’s nominee for president.

In the mean time, Green is preparing as though the primary will take place.

Ballots will be sent out to registered Democrats after May 1 if necessary, and voters can also ask to receive ballots by sending an email with their voter information to vote@co.chautauqua.ny.us, or by sending a letter to the county board of elections.

“We are holding up any ballots going out right now until the state makes its decision on the primary,” Green said.

While Chautauqua County is well positioned to make the transition to absentee voting in response to the coronavirus outbreak, other areas of the state may not be. Looking forward to the November elections, both Green and Republican Commissioner Brian Abram are working to make sure that voters can still cast their ballots.

“Seven to 10 minutes should be the process in a normal situation,” Abram said of voters going to the polls. “I think it will be slower (with social distancing) but I think that you are still very much in the customer service industry and you have to find a way to keep the voters separate but move them along.”

Abram mentioned procedures that are in place at grocery stores and other public places, and stressed the importance of keeping election workers and voters safe during in-person voting. Local election officials have followed recent primaries in other states to see what issues have arisen.

“We don’t want voting to be a burden,” Abram said. “We always watch other states just to see if we can improve our process. When we look at other states and some of their issues, we try to streamline our process.”

While it may seem simple on the outside to make a switch to absentee voting via mail, there are many different factors to be considered.

“There are lots of complexities that are involved in absentee or vote by mail, or voting on demand that just can’t simply be overcome,” Green said. “With that said, in Chautauqua County we have been talking about this for years. Brian and I have a plan. We ordered enough absentee ballots to be able to do vote by mail for the upcoming primary. We could do it if the governor ordered us to. But what we found was the rest of the state has not been as proactive. We just have to remember that we have big counties and small counties, and the solution is complex.”

Green said that the main security issue in absentee ballot voting in New York is matching signatures of voters.

“The No. 1 security issue we have in New York state is the signature,” he said. “When the ballot comes back we compare the signature on the ballot and if the signature doesn’t match it gets set aside. That is our only security measure in the state of New York.”

A silver lining of holding elections during this time is that it can force officials to look at problems that existed beforehand.

“This is an opportunity for us to look at the system that we have now,” Green said. “The public really is demanding that we do something different and their demands come in the fact that they haven’t been coming out to vote except in presidential years.”

According to Green, the county typically sees above 70% turnout during presidential election years, and sometimes less than 30% during other elections. Streamlining the process out of necessity due to the pandemic may have the potential to drive improvements of voting procedures moving forward.

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