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Election commissioners want primary date changed due to coronavirus

Election commissioners want primary date changed due to coronavirus

Polling places and staff may be unavailable due to coronavirus restrictions
Election commissioners want primary date changed due to coronavirus
Local voters in 2014
Photographer: File photo

CAPITAL REGION -- Saying they face critical shortages of poll workers and places to vote that aren't off-limits, the state's county elections commissioners want the upcoming April 28 Democratic presidential primary delayed because of the spreading novel coronavirus.

On Tuesday, the state Election Commissioners' Association urged Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the state Legislature to take action as soon as possible to postpone the vote, saying deadlines for training personnel and testing voting machines ahead of the primary are approaching, and the pandemic is making it difficult to recruit poll workers.

"Election boards throughout the state are risking personnel safety and health to prepare for impending elections on April 28," the group said in a statement. "We are facing critical shortages of inspectors and polling places due to the ongoing public health crisis."

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Schenectady County's elections commissioners are having trouble getting permission to use some of the polling places they normally use, which include senior citizen centers, schools and other buildings that have been emptied as people are told to stay away to prevent virus transmission.

"A lot of the locations we use say they wouldn't be able to give us access," said Amy Hild, Schenectady County's Democratic election commissioner. 'We're having an issue with locations, and difficulty in recruiting staff to work."

Many poll workers are in the older demographic most susceptible to the respiratory illness; also, many on Board of Elections' staffs are currently staying out of the office, but would need to be called back as "essential" to prepare for the primary.

"We're concerned for the health and safety of our employees," said Darlene Harris, the county's Republican commissioner.

While the primary is April 28, all voting technology needs to be ready on April 18.

The association represents commissioners of election in 57 counties across the state as well as New York City -- the people who actually oversee the county-by-county voting in New York's decentralized election administration system. Republican and Democratic commissioners from across the state caucused by phone on Monday, and both causes voted to ask for the delay.

The election commissioners' organization is seeking:

-- To have the April 28 primary delayed until June 23, when other federal and state party primaries are scheduled to take place. "Postponing until June not only gives us time to plan, but will ease the burdens on host counties' budgets that are being devastated by the COVID-19 crisis," the association said.

-- Amending election law to allow absentee voting during all times of declared emergency due to an infectious disease outbreak. The proposal isn't for all-absentee voting, but for fear of exposure to be a qualifying reason to obtain an absentee ballot.

"We have had voters reach out already with that request," Hild said.

-- Give county boards of election wide latitude to consolidate polling places for primary and special elections, given potential staffing shortages, even if the presidential primary doesn't happen until June.

Commissioners are hoping for a quick decision on whether the Democratic primary -- now a two-person race between former vice president Joe Biden and Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders -- can be delayed.

Harris, Schenectady County's Republican commissioner, said the commissioners' first choice would be a delay in the vote and second choice would be to try to have it done by absentee ballot, which would entail higher printing and mailing costs.

Cuomo on Sunday acknowledged he is considering whether the upcoming April 28 Democratic presidential primary and possibly other future elections can be conducted entirely by absentee ballot. "I think it's a good idea," Cuomo said.

Among the unanswered questions is whether Cuomo has the power to order all-absentee voting under his executive authority, or whether it would require the state Legislature to amend election law. Current law allows absentee balloting only due to a voter being away on an election day, or unable to get to their polling place due to illness.

State Attorney General Letitia James on Sunday called for making the primary an all-absentee vote, citing the social distancing efforts being made to control the spread of the coronavirus, which has spread rapidly around the world this winter, and across New York state in recent weeks.

New York isn't the only state dealing with the issue. The Associated Press reported that many states, including Georgia, Ohio, Maryland, Indiana, Lousiana, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Kentucky, have postponed spring primaries for the Democratic presidential nomination because of coronavirus concerns. Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maryland were also scheduled for April 28 votes.

Reach staff writer Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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