New York — which has become the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic’s spread in the U.S.– is also, so far, the only state that hasn’t moved to postpone or drastically change the status of its April 28 presidential primary.
Five of the six total states slated to vote that day have delayed or moved to expand absentee voting to continue on with their elections in the midst of the health emergency.
The New York State Election Commissioners Association, along with other voting access groups, have called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to consolidate the state’s presidential primary election with another primary set for June 23, arguing that the additional time will allow counties to properly prepare and organize around a potentially very different method of voting.
Many issues contribute to what the commission says will be a difficult election to pull off, according to the organization’s president Kelly Penziul. Closed polling sites, lack of poll workers and public health concerns are at the top of the list.
“It’s going be kind of tough to pull this off if we have to stay with April 28. The fact is we don’t want to jeopardize the health of our employees,” Penziul told ABC News. “You can’t quarantine people and then turn around and say, ‘Oh yeah, by the way, there’s an election, go vote.’ You really can’t do that in my eyes at all.”
Other states scheduled to vote late April are expanding their absentee voting process to make sure ballots get cast. Ohio enacted similar changes which would allow for no-excuse absentee voting up until April 28, although some groups argue that the turnaround time is too short for that fix to be sufficient.
“That’ll be a challenge. We have to know that. I don’t think we can go to total absentees because we’d never be able to handle that, especially in the big cities,” said Anthony Scannapieco, the Republican caucus chairman for the commissioners association.
Common Cause New York, a voting rights group, has called on Gov. Cuomo and state officials to consolidate the primary, contending that officials have made it clear that they won’t have the bandwidth to conduct an entirely absentee election by late April.
“We don’t have the infrastructure in place to do it quite frankly, so that’s anything from having enough paper to print all the ballots, to making sure that we have prepaid postage, to make sure folks can return their ballot. It’s a lot of smaller logistical decisions and preparations that would need to have started weeks ago,” said Sarah Goff, the deputy director of Common Cause New York.
To switch to an all-mail election requires years of transition periods, John Conklin of the New York State Board of Elections said, citing states that have used multiple cycles to make that switch.
“A lot of the states that do vote by mail didn’t do it overnight, didn’t do it in a single election. They built to it over time. It had expanded vote by mail over multiple election cycles and even multiple years,” Conklin said. “So, I think that would be a drastic change for our system, and would require a lot of changes.”
Since counties frequently utilize public facilities — many of which are closed due to coronavirus concerns — officials are worried that if the April 28 day of voting did proceed, there would be nowhere to hold elections.
Penziul said that under the current orders from Gov. Cuomo, it would be impossible to open any of her current polling sites in a way that would prevent large gatherings.
“You have whole sites themselves that are becoming unavailable: schools, public buildings, places that are being shut down,” Conklin said.
The concerns about processing absentee ballots factors into staffing as well. Approximately 55% of poll workers are over the age of 60 in New York, Conklin said, putting many of those who administer the election at risk of contracting or spreading the disease.
Although Gov. Cuomo has made no public move to change the election, officials say they hope to hear from him early next week.
New York State Attorney General Letitia James called for no-excuse absentee voting, which the state does not currently offer, in order to allow the April 28 election to continue.
“Voters shouldn’t have to choose between their health and the right to cast a ballot,” James said in a press release. “If we act now, we have more than a month before the presidential primary and numerous special elections across our state to take action and ensure every eligible New York voter receives an absentee ballot.”
Gov. Cuomo’s office did not respond to request for comment.
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