CAPITAL REGION — With state officials encouraging people more strongly than ever to consider absentee ballot voting this fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic, county boards of elections are gearing up for a rush on absentee ballots, and far more absentee ballots than in the past.
With state encouragement, large percentages of voters will chose absentee ballots for the November vote. Everyone who is involved in administering local elections seems to believe that.
“It’s gonna be a long couple of months here,” said Terry Bieniek, Montgomery County’s Democratic elections commissioner. “I’ve got to say I think people really want to vote.”
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday announced a state web portal where registered voters can directly request an absentee ballot for the Nov. 3 election, which will include the races for president and other federal and state offices. Traditionally, presidential years see the largest voter turnouts.
Just since Cuomo’s announcement, Montgomery County has received 115 ballot requests through the portal, Bieniek said Thursday.
Acting by executive order, Cuomo has allowed any voter concerned about COVID-19 exposure to request an absentee ballot, checking “temporary illness” as the reason.
“As the November election approaches we know that many voters feel vulnerable in the midst of this pandemic,” Cuomo said. “Voting is the cornerstone of democracy and we want each and every voter to feel safe and secure in the exercise of voting.”
Another change put in place this year allows voters to request absentee ballots starting now, rather than wait to within 30 days before the election.
Those who sign up through the state portal will have the information collected by the state Board of Elections, which will then distribute the information to the appropriate county — but county boards can only guess at what to expect.
“We’ve got an order hanging for 25,000 sets, and we may need more,” said Saratoga County Republican Election Commissioner Roger Schiera. “I think there will be more than that, maybe twice that.”
Saratoga County, which has about 170,000 registered voters, would normally see perhaps 8 to 10 percent of voters vote absentee in a major election, Schiera said. But in this year’s COVID-impacted June primary, only about 3,600 people voted in person, while 14,000 voted by absentee ballot.
“If the trend of the primary keeps up, what the heck are election night results going to mean?” he asked.
At least one Capital Region primary race — the Republican nomination in the 19th Congressional District — saw a result reversed when all absentees were counted. Ola Hawatmeh led on primary night; the ultimate winner was Kyle Van De Water. Van De Water is facing incumbent U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck.
For the June 23 primary, boards of election were required to send absentee ballot applications to every voter. For the general election, the state isn’t requiring that, but is requiring local boards of election to send all voters a card informing them of the different ways they are allowed to vote: Election Day, early voting, and absentee.
There has been a lot of controversy about whether the U.S. Postal Service will be able to deliver returned ballots by Election Day. President Trump has been criticizing the practice of mail-in voting, claiming it will lead to fraud.
“I think the postal thing hurt the voting by mail, but I still think we’re going to get a large majority of absentees,” Bieniek said. “The governor is really pushing to let voters know, and make it a lot easier for them to vote, and it seems to be working.”
But voters don’t have to rely on the mail. This year’s rules allow voters to drop off an absentee ballot sealed in its envelope at an early voting location or any polling place on Election Day, to be counted later.
In Schenectady County, County Manager Rory Fluman said the county is in the process of making sure it has enough paper and other supplies to print the ballots. The county does the ballot printing by contract with some other counties, including Saratoga.
Despite the charges of politicians like Trump that fraud is possible with mail-in ballots, Bieniek said there are systems in place to make sure people don’t vote more than once, and representatives of both political parties — and during ballot-counting, lawyers representing candidates — are watching everything the Board of Elections does.
Intentionally voting both by mail and in-person, as Trump appeared to suggest supporters try this week, is illegal voter fraud, and electronic voter/ballot signature checks would immediately pick it up, Bieniek said.
Double-voting sometimes happens — someone votes by mail because of expected travel plans, for example, only to have their plans change so that they are available to vote in person. By law, if someone sends in a mail ballot and then also votes in person, the in-person vote counts and the mail ballot is destroyed.
“I suppose if you think about it 24/7 you could find a way to cheat the system, but eventually we’re going to catch you,” Bieniek said. “In the end, we get vote counts right.”
This year’s election reforms follow the implementation in 2019 of early voting, which also put new responsibilities and staffing requirements on county boards of elections. Some also began using electronic poll books for the first time last year, while other counties will be using them for the first time this year.