EDITORIAL: State must expand mail-in voting for November

Citizens need to feel safe when participating in democratic process

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

With one of the most important elections in our nation’s history less than seven months away, it’s important that as many people who want to vote in that election have an opportunity to do so.

But the coronavirus epidemic could put a damper on voter turnout, discouraging potential voters from showing up at the polls.

In addition, the threat of catching the virus will likely discourage many poll workers from volunteering, reducing the number of polling places available because there would be fewer people available to staff them.

Fewer poll workers and fewer voting locations will likely result in long lines at polling places, with people crowded unsafely close together, similar to what happened in Tuesday’s Democratic presidential primary in Wisconsin.

Voters won’t tolerate a repeat of that mess, and any possibility of that happening will discourage many from turning out and undermine the entire democratic process.

New York already has among the lowest voter turnout in the country, and the outbreak could drive it down even further.

That’s why it’s vitally important that New York state have alternative options in place to voting in person on Election Day — making it possible for more New Yorkers to vote by mail, as well as expanding opportunities for early voting to spread out the number of in-person voters.

But already, opposition is growing to efforts that would allow more people to avoid voting in person.

Even though he and his family vote by absentee ballot, President Donald Trump last week came out strongly against mail-in balloting, saying falsely that the process was rife with fraud and, perhaps beside the point, that it was designed to hurt Republican candidates.

In reality, instances of fraud in relation to mail-in voting are very rare.

Five states currently conduct all their elections almost entirely by mail, and all have reported very little fraud over the years.

The fact is, there aren’t millions of dead people voting. Large numbers of people aren’t stuffing the ballot boxes with phony ballots and having them counted, since any such anomaly in large numbers would likely trigger an investigation.

Basic safeguards put in place to ensure the validity and security of each voter’s legitimate ballot have been effective, including mailing voters special envelopes marked with a bar code specific to the voter’s identity, which they then return with their ballots.

Here in New York, the move toward mail-in ballots is slowly gaining momentum.

But the effort is being impeded by the state’s own constitution, which only allows very narrow reasons for someone to vote by absentee ballot. Any changes to allow so-called “no-excuse” absentee voting would require amending the constitution through a voter referendum. And the earliest that referendum could take place is November 2021, way too late for this election.

To get around the constitutional restrictions, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has recently used his emergency powers to expand the justification for voters to use absentee ballots in the upcoming June primary to include having the coronavirus or fearing one might contract it by voting in person.

Some worry that the order might not stand up to a court challenge, which is likely to come from Republicans.

But the state’s position could be strengthened if the state Legislature put the special exemption for the coronavirus into law.

A bill pending before the Legislature (A10271/S8015A) would effectively codify no-excuse absentee voting by redefining the term “illness” for the purpose of absentee voting to include the spread or potential spread of any communicable disease at a time of declaration of a state of emergency. That wording is  tailored to include the coronavirus.

Voters still would retain the option of voting in person, unless the state takes further action.

And further action is in the works.

State Attorney General Letitia James earlier this year called for the suspension of all in-person voting until further notice and urged the state to send every eligible voter an absentee ballot for the upcoming primary and five special elections.

The problem with applying that to the general election is whether the state has enough time in the next six months and 24 days to expand its ability to allow most voters to vote by mail.

The state would have to create a system for mailing out ballots, which might not reach all voters.

And it would have to enact procedures to prevent people from stuffing the ballot boxes with fraudulent ballots and to identify any efforts at widespread fraud.

It could be done, but lawmakers would have to act quickly to both pass the expanded eligibility legislation and to put the mechanisms in place to actually carry it out.

Regardless of the challenges, it’s something the state needs to do.

New York officials can’t be discouraging people from gathering in public on one hand while also encouraging them to put themselves at risk by voting in person.

Mail-in voting has proven to be safe, effective and secure.

New York needs to quickly ramp up its ability to offer mail-in voting, to ensure that its citizens feel confident and protected in casting their votes.

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