Our representative democracy works best when as many people have as much access to voting as possible.
During the pandemic, when New Yorkers were discouraged and oftentimes prevented from gathering in public, the state took extraordinary steps to make it easier, more convenient and safer for people to exercise their right to vote.
One of those that proved very popular and secure, and which had already been proven effective and secure in other states, was voting my mail.
Another option designed to make it more convenient and safe for people to vote eliminated the requirement that people only could vote in person during select hours on one specific day – Election Day. That new option was early voting. That, too, has proven popular and secure.
Now state lawmakers are considering legislation that would permanently expand voter access to the polls even more by allowing early voting by mail.
There are good reasons why people might want to vote by mail and vote early.
Voting by mail is convenient, in that people don’t have to drive somewhere on a specific day in order to vote. It’s convenient for people who work during regular voting hours, who have childcare issues to deal with, who are elderly or disabled to the point where voting in person is challenging, or who don’t have transportation to the polls.
None of these situations should prevent or discourage someone from voting. Allowing registered voters to request a mail-in ballot and vote early by mail addresses those issues.
One issue that lawmakers hope to overcome is the constitutionality of the proposals. Voters in 2021 voted down a proposal to allow them to vote by absentee ballot without providing an excuse.
Right now, voters are restricted from voting by absentee ballot unless they have a valid reason, such as being out of their county of residence on Election Day or serving in the military or being physically unable to vote in person. During the pandemic, people were also entitled to vote by mail if they feared contracting covid.
Lawmakers hope that they can institute no-excuse mail-in voting by putting the option into law.
Sponsors say lawmakers are empowered by the constitution to determine the ways in which people can vote, and that, they say, includes early voting by mail. They also say that similar proposals have survived legal challenges in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, and that about 35 states already allow their citizens to vote via no-excuse mail-in voting.
The proposed legislation (A7632/S7394) would establish procedures and deadlines for applying for ballots and returning them.
There are concerns, particularly from Republicans and Conservatives, that local boards of elections are not equipped to handle a large influx of absentee ballots. But lawmakers can ensure that the boards have state financial support to manage the returns and to ensure that the ballots are not fraudulent. Again, other states have addressed these concerns. New York can adopt their practices in order to provide this special option for voting.
The easier and more convenient people find voting, the more likely they are to participate in the electoral process. Any legislation that increases public input should be welcomed.