ALBANY — Across New York, registered voters have been flooding county boards of elections with requests for absentee ballots in numbers that dwarf the applications that came in four years ago, according to local officials who administer the voting system.
Government reform advocates and the local elections officials say they have confidence in the ability of the state’s voting system to deal with any stress from added participation this year.
New York is now allowing voters to qualify for absentee ballots by simply indicating they are concerned about the risk of being exposed to an illness, including COVID-19.
At the Otsego County Board of Elections office in Middlefield, elections commissioners Lori Lehenbauer (Republican) and Michael Henrici (Democrat) said they are confident of the integrity of the voting system.
Some states have resorted to mailing out absentee ballots to all residents, Lehenbauer said.
“You have to be a registered voter to get an absentee ballot in New York,” Henrici added.
“The ultimate safeguard is at the end,” Henrici said.
“The ballot has to come back inside a sealed envelope bearing the voter’s signature that matches the voter’s signature on file. “If Lori and I question the signature, let’s say it’s different than what is on file, you can have the voter sign an affidavit.”
Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause/New York, said the safeguards are designed to thwart any attempt by voters to have their choices counted twice.
“New York is one of the few states where you can change your mind after you have sent in your absentee ballot,” Lerner said. “But only one vote is going to count. If you change your mind after you vote by absentee ballot, your in-person vote is going to override anything you sent in.”
Last year, in a push to broaden voter participation, the state began to allow early voting. Concern with the COVID-19 contagion is expected to prompt many voters to avoid long lines on Election Day by voting early or getting absentee ballots.
John Conklin, spokesman for the state Board of Elections in Albany, said voter turnout tends to be at its highest in presidential election years, and this year’s election will likely have higher voter participation than usual. And if the voters opt for an absentee ballot, they won’t have to use the mail.
“The voters can now get an absentee ballot and take it in and drop it off to their board of election,” Conklin said.
“So that’s 62 places right there where they can drop it off right now. On Oct. 24, when early voting begins, that will add another 250 plus locations statewide for where people will be able to take an absentee ballot and drop it off in person.
“And that will be until Nov. 1. And then on Nov. 3, election day, there will be 5,000-plus locations for people to take their absentee ballot in person and drop it off.”
One of the greatest safeguards against ballot fraud is the signature requirement, Conklin said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has removed the requirement that signatures be provided in the application for absentee ballots, he said.
However, the voter’s signature, along with the date, is required on the affirmation envelope that is placed inside the outer envelope for the ballots that are distributed. The signature allows poll workers to compare it with the signature exemplar on file for each voter, Conklin added.
“That part of the check against fraud is still there, and it is one we have used for decades,” Conklin said.
Getting final election results is expected to be slowed this year, especially for contests shaping up as tight races, due to the elevated use of paper ballots and what Lerner called the state’s exacting process to make sure it counts only the ballots of registered voters.
“There are checks, cross checks and double checks for these ballots in New York,” Lerner said. “And that means it takes longer in New York to count absentee ballots than it does in some other places.
Voter concerns with the capacity and fitness of the mail system to properly relay mailed ballots are expected to be allayed by the availability of drop boxes for ballots at polling sites, said Jennifer Wilson, spokeswoman for the state chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Voters can also arrange for a friend, neighbor or relative to deliver the completed ballots on their behalf, she said.
“I think there will still be many people voting in person,” Wilson said. “We have seen a big publicity push to make sure people know we have early voting in New York state.”
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.