Senator Jen Metzger (D-42) introduced a new bill (S8120) on Monday that would require the NYS Board of Elections to create a plan that would employ the use of a vote-by-mail election system during a time of national disaster or state of emergency.
The bill is intended to create a plan that would allow New Yorkers to send their ballots in by mail to avoid the lines and crowds that traditional in person voting measures tend to be subject to, should the current public health crisis continue. “Very important elections are coming up and an alternative plan for voting needs to be put in place; we need to start now in order to be ready for the election [in June],” said Metzger, “If we’re in the same situation in June that were in right now, voters won't be able to get to the polls.”
Metzger is urging the Board of Elections to have a system set up by May 1 in order to allow enough time to prepare for the State and Federal primary elections set to take place on June 23. The bill would not be enacted in time to allow for a new system to be implemented for the Democratic Presidential Primary set for April 28, which is being considered for postponement.
Other states have already been utilizing similar vote-by-mail systems for their elections far before the current global pandemic. In the fall of 2000, Oregon became the first state in the country to hold elections at each level (local, state, federal) through a vote-by-mail process. Washington and Colorado have since also adopted vote-by-mail practices for their elections.
Along with offering voters an easier, safer way to cast their ballots, vote-by-mail systems are intended to streamline the election process for everyone. While the rate of voters casting their ballot in person has been relatively decreasing for the last 20 years, participation by voting by mail has been steadily increasing. In addition to increasing voter participation, vote-by-mail gives voters the opportunity to spend some time with their ballots before casting them. “This initiative allows people to have time with their ballots, see the candidates, and spend time researching them. Often the case is that voters walk into the booth on election day and discover a ballot initiative they’ve never heard of and have to make a split-second decision without prior knowledge of the initiative or the candidates on their ballots,” said Metzger.
The bill also draws attention to New York’s flawed absentee ballot system, which some have regarded as cumbersome and non-inclusive. The current system requires voters request an absentee ballot only under a select number of extenuating circumstances, none of which mention public emergencies or health crises as valid excuses for being unable to vote in person on election day.
State Senator Alessandra Biaggi (D-34) also recently introduced a bill that would add additional criteria for requesting an absentee ballot for New Yorkers who are in quarantine or concerned about the public health risk the COVID-19 virus currently presents. “[New Yorkers] should not have to choose between safeguarding their own health and fulfilling their civic duty. Nor should New Yorkers who are in quarantine be denied their right to participate on Election Day,” said Biaggi.
Along with the issue of qualification for absentee ballots, access to absentee ballots could pose an issue for voters come June. It is only when a voter is approved for an absentee ballot that they receive their ballot in the mail. Metzger’s bill would enable the Board of Elections to automatically send ballots to every registered voter in the state, in the case of a statewide emergency, like the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s a procedurally cumbersome process; voters fill out the application, it gets submitted to the Board of Elections, and they then send the ballot in mail once approved. Voters have to plan in advance and apply; this is not a system that you want an entire election to depend upon,” said Metzger.
On the national level, a bill introduced by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) hopes to enact the principles of vote-by-mail to the entire US in response to the COVID-19 crisis and allow voters to cast their ballots from home to avoid long lines and congregation on election day come November. “Without federal action, vulnerable Americans are going to have to choose between casting a ballot and protecting their health. Vote-by-mail is a time-tested, reliable way for Americans to exercise their constitutional rights, and the right answer to respond to this crisis,” said Wyden.