Amid Pandemic, Barriers Reduced for NYC Primary Voters

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By Laura Wood and Jarret Berg

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into high relief many inequities in our society. But one bright spot is the progress New York has made in recent months reducing barriers for voter participation in our elections. Now, we have an opportunity to extend these improvements to voter access into November.

Chief among these is the ability for any June Primary voter to request a mail-in ballot. Going into the State of Emergency, New York’s absentee voting laws were among the most restrictive, one of only sixteen states that require voters to provide a statutory excuse to qualify for a mail ballot. In 2019, both chambers of the State Legislature passed a bill to repeal that limitation. However, it is entrenched in our State Constitution, requiring a multi-year process to change. In the meantime, voters who do qualify for a mail ballot must affirmatively request one from the board of elections.

As news reports documented the rapid spread of the virus and New York infection rates surged into the tens of thousands, Governor Cuomo clarified in an Executive Order that a voter’s unavailability to appear in person due to “temporary illness” includes “the prevalence and community spread of COVID-19” illness, and specifically “the potential for contraction.”

This clarification permits any June Primary voter to vote by mail, but only if they request a ballot by the June 16th application deadline.

In addition, barriers have been reduced even further for June by modernizing the antiquated multistep process for requesting a mail ballot, both for New Yorkers who are online or use smartphones and those without internet access. However, these resiliency measures are only as effective as our ability to spread the word about them.

That is why the Mayor’s Democracy NYC Initiative, a consortium of city agencies including the Campaign Finance Board, and the non-partisan Let NY Vote Coalition have committed to educate voters about these changes through PSAs and robust outreach in multiple languages directed at voters in the communities hardest hit by COVID-19, many of which also have historically lower participation.

June Voters with Internet Access or Smartphones Can Request A Mail Ballot Online

To modernize access and reduce unnecessary delays or exposures, all June voters may request a mail ballot online from the NYC Board of Elections, by completing a fast and simple online form.

Unnecessary clerical hurdles have been temporarily suspended for June. Thanks to these measures, homebound residents with internet access no longer need to find a printer, sign the request form by hand, locate and purchase a stamp, or submit the application via snail-mail. Instead, voters can use the online form (or send an email) that provides the Board with information necessary to locate their record and confirm their preferred mailing address.

June Voters without Internet Access will be Mailed an Application; Postage is Guaranteed

 For New Yorkers on the other side of the digital divide—a sometimes insurmountable socio-economic and cultural gulf in the age of stay-at-home orders and Zoom meetings—executive action requires the Board of Elections is now required to send every June-eligible voter in the City an application for a mail ballot, with postage-paid return guaranteed for both applications and ballots. Alternatively, voters need not wait; they can request a ballot over the phone by calling 1-866-VOTE-NYC (1-866-868-3692).

So in spite of all the hardship, one silver lining is that barriers to voting by mail have never been lower than they will be for June Primary voters. And now that the courts have ordered the State to hold the Democratic Presidential Primary, all registered Democrats have at least one race to participate in. For other elections in NYC, voters can check to see if there are primary elections in your district.

And now that the courts have ordered the State to hold the Democratic Presidential Primary, all registered Democrats have at least one race to participate in.

But since no one can guarantee that these same risks will not be with us in the fall, when millions of additional New Yorkers will need modern options to remain healthy while exercising their civil rights, these measures should be extended through state action until the end of the year, providing much-needed lead time so the Board of Elections can adjust their massive operation, procure materials, and scale the necessary capacity accordingly.

Laura Wood, Senior Advisor and General Counsel at the Mayor’s DemocracyNYC Initiative and Jarret Berg attorney and co-founder of the non-partisan VoteEarlyNY.