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Is Voting By Mail Coming To NY?

We have been watching with great interest as a few states in the U.S.A. have been forced into absentee voting during the current COVID-19 outbreak. Conducting mostly low turnout and rushed implementation of vote by mail primaries, states have had to overcome more than a few pitfalls. But we’ve been proud how our far-flung election professionals have responded under extremely trying conditions.

New York’s State Constitution is the number one stumbling block to any balloting by mail in our state and currently only allows that “…qualified voters who, on the occurrence of any election, may be unable to appear personally at the polling place because of illness or physical disability, may vote and for the return and canvass of their votes.”

However, this year is different. Due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, the State Legislature has granted Gov. Cuomo unprecedented far reaching emergency powers that might possibly allow him to declare that voting by mail for the Nov. General Election is in the state’s best interest to protect its citizens from the virus.

The question for our state starts with New York City with its nearly four million registered voters and it would seem to be the impossible place to roll out a new vote by mail program in normal times. Currently, many of the city election board members are sick with the COVID-19 virus and sadly several have died. Mandating voting by mail in the city would be a non-starter. Add to that the fact many election supply vendors are closed down due to the virus and that there is a national envelope shortage. Our fellow election professionals have signaled to the two of us that they are not at a point even close to making vote by mail a reality. For this and other technical and less technical reasons, voting by mail seems to be a non-starter for all of the Empire State. It’s an all or none solution. A patch work of county voting processes across the state would not be fair.

Be assured that Chautauqua County is ready to convert to mail-in balloting if ever ordered by New York State. We are one of a half dozen counties that prints ballots in-house saving the county $50,000 to $100,000 each year and our on-demand Board of Elections run in-house print shop allows our County to turn on a dime to take on any new mandates. Our County is already heavily stocked and prepared with the various ballot envelopes needed for vote by mail or absentee voting, but stock levels are not currently enough for a full-blown November balloting by mail. We have purchased with secured federal grant money, high speed vote counting scanners known as central count machines that have allowed for a smooth in-take and counting of absentee ballots at our Mayville offices for the past several election cycles. Further, to our benefit, Chautauqua is the perfect sized mid-level county that has the resources including a top notch Information Services computer department to make a new ballot by mail procedure happen and our county is not so big that the task would be too overwhelming.

Citizen friends in the general county community have simplified vote by mail in their heads so that it should be an easy implementation and roll out. But we all need to be sympathetic to the complications of any vote by mail system particularly for extremely large and extremely small counties.

Due to the insurmountable roadblocks, voting by mail in 2020 seems to me to be an impossibility. However, COVID-19 may be the kickstart our state needs to move ahead with no excuse mail in voting. Be assured as always is the case, your Chautauqua County Board of Elections is ready with a plan if the call from the state for early voting ever comes.

Norman P. Green and Brian C. Abram are both Chautauqua County Election Commissioners.

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