Op-Ed | Voting by mail must be expanded to fix existing problems

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Our City and State just faced a pivotal election—which included the presidential primary and races for the state and congressional leaders who give a voice to New Yorkers at a time when we face many crises. Yet, two weeks later, we are faced with mounting questions on the administration of vote-by-mail and no answers for the failures that disenfranchised voters.

The Board of Elections in New York City turns Election Day into Groundhog Day—we see the same problematic deficiencies each cycle: despite a bipartisan cross-ideological desire to fix them, they reoccur like clockwork. The time has come to use the important expansion of vote-by-mail to finally fix these consistent problems.

The most critical failure happened as the Board expanded the use of vote-by-mail to allow voters to express their opinions safely from home. Despite dangerous fear-mongering from Washington, the demand for voting by mail was inspiring—and a hint of what is to come in November. But the potential levels of disenfranchisement in the primary are concerning and need to be remedied.

We need to know the number of voters who requested a ballot that didn’t arrive, who received incorrect ballots or missing envelopes, and whose applications never arrived. Let’s increase language access for vote-by-mail applications and promote mail ballots in communities where applications lagged. Further, the governor must immediately sign an executive order to extend those provisions that expanded absentee voting for the primary to the General Election.

These are also some other common-sense reforms that will build trust in our electoral process and make voting simpler:

  • Allow anyone who applied for a “temporary” mail ballot for the primary to opt-out for the General with a mailed postcard, rather than reapply and opt-in. As our pandemic continues, we can take this easy step to prepare for the volume of new applications.
  • Send vote-by-mail applications to all additional eligible voters before Labor Day, giving voters almost 2 months to request ballots. We should further revamp the online application system to prepare for the General Election and allow voters to track their application status.
  • Commit to at least doubling early voting hours and locations, with adequate funding by the State and nontraditional sites explored like the New York Public Library. New York County, for example, hosted 12 early voting sites, one per 83,000 active voters in that borough. Contrastingly, Miami-Dade County in Florida, where early voting has existed since 2004, had one site per 64,700 voters. Additional sites in our city would decrease the travel needed for vulnerable New Yorkers to vote early.
  • Allow voters to return their ballots via secure dropboxes, eliminating concerns of postmark deadlines and mail return dates. In many states, these dropboxes work seamlessly to increase trust in mail ballots and speed up the processing and counting of ballots.
  • Fund dedicated resources for in-house staff to help voters with application problems. Too many people gave up on the Board’s help line as unending waits and language access issues presented further problems without dedicated resources.
  • Quickly review the capacity issues and error rates at each mail vendor contracted to assemble and distribute absentee ballots. Many of the processing errors, such as missing return envelopes or missing ballots, likely originated at these outside contractors. The Board must seek concrete assurances that current contracts can be fulfilled properly for the General, and should seek state assistance to expedite new contracts that would expand capacity.
  • Prioritize transparency. While the Board eventually made statistics public on their website after the election, even states as restrictive as Wisconsin had daily online tallies to demonstrate how many applications were processed and when.
  • Begin a public search for a new Executive Director with a new vision.

These are just some of many options suggested by reformers and advocates that can build faith as we prepare for the most important election in our lifetime.

The City Council’s oversight is unfortunately limited, but the state and city Boards can be made responsive by public scrutiny and vocal leadership. While the Board’s structure and operations needs to be reformed in Albany, let’s focus on fixing voting by mail for future elections in a way that eliminates our disappointment and ensures the enfranchisement of every New Yorker. We need to get it right—and we can use this summer to demand change.