How to vote safely in 2020

New York voters will continue to be able to use the pandemic as a reason to request an absentee ballot, thanks to a bill signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo on August 20. Amid concerns that the mail system has become compromised ahead of the 2020 election, voters will have alternative ways to get their absentee ballots counted. Voting in person will also available on Election Day and during the early-voting period that takes place immediately beforehand, with precautions in place to protect the health of election workers and voters.

Governor Cuomo signed three bills that will clarify the use of absentee ballots. One of them makes permanent the option of requesting to vote absentee due to risk of illness, which was expiring. Requests for absentee ballots no longer need to be delivered on paper, either. Ulster County voters may send them in by email to elections@co.ulster.ny.us or by old-fashioned fax machine by dialing 334-5434. The application may be obtained by calling 334-5470 or online at https://elections.ulstercountyny.gov/absentee-ballots/. Those ballots will now be able to be mailed out to voters on September 18, several weeks earlier than previously allowed for most voters. In New York absentee ballots must be postmarked November 3, Election Day. Another new law clarifies what to do with ballots that are received without a postmark. As long as it shows up in the mail by November 4, it will be counted.

“We’ve always had absentee voting,” said Tom Turco, the Republican election commissioner. He draws a distinction between that process and voting by mail, which is not done in this state. “New York is an in-person voting state,” he said. 

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Turco said that commissioners have been “fighting forever” to clarify the question of postmarks on absentee ballots. He noted that the ability to request an absentee ballot electronically should make it easier on voters, but he’s glad that they will still have to request one. For the primary they were sent out to all voters, which he characterized as a nightmare.

“The number-one question we get is how to return ballots without using the mail,” said Ashley Dittus, the Democratic election commissioner. “They can be returned to our office [284 Wall Street, Kingston] Monday through Friday from nine to five, at any of the five early-voting sites, or on November 3 [Election Day] at any of the 83 polling sites. Anyone can drop off your ballot, and there is no limit how many ballots someone can drop off for others. People are trying to figure out how to help because of fear and anxiety around mailing ballots in, following a warning by federal postmaster general Louis DeJoy that ballots may not arrive in time to be counted. Receptacles for absentee ballots can be used “with contact with just one election inspector,” Dittus explained.

Voters in Ulster County who choose to go to the polls for early or regular voting probably won’t be facing the hours-long lines seen during primaries in other parts of the country. State law requires commissioners to open up additional polling lines at any site where the line exceeds a 30-minute wait. Dittus said that many people have applied to be inspectors, and thanks to video training sessions that are now permissible, replacement inspectors can be brought up to speed relatively quickly. When done in person, that training took up a lot of time by staff members — time that can be devoted to processing absentee ballot applications instead.

As with the primary vote in June, voters will be greeted at a sanitation table where the steps for safe voting will be provided. They will be asked to sanitize their hands, and be provided gloves and a mask if they aren’t already wearing one. Masks are required for voters. Poll workers will also wear face shields and gloves. Six-foot distances will be marked out with tape on the floor. After each ballot is completed and put into the machine, workers will sanitize the privacy area, pen, voting machine and folder that contained the ballot. Voters can dispose of the gloves on their way out the door, and will have another opportunity to sanitize their hands.

“It’s the safest public space you can be in,” Dittus believes.

Early voting will take place from October 24 to November 1 at five locations: the Woodstock community center, the Midtown Neighborhood Center in Kingston, the New Paltz Community Center, the Ellenville Public Library and the American Legion hall in Highland. Anyone who is registered can use any of these early-voting sites. Dittus said that, given the security measures in place to guard against fraud, one can mail in an absentee ballot “as a safety net,” because voting in person just means the absentee ballot won’t be counted.

The commissioners are prepared for counting more absentee ballots: they’ve invested in a counting machine that can process a thousand an hour, while allowing attorneys and other poll watchers to review them on a screen even before they’re opened. “If we get 25,000 absentee ballots, it should take about a week to count them,” said Dittus. “We’ll have results before Thanksgiving, if not sooner.”

Turco tried to clarify the difference between absentee voting and a general vote-by-mail process. Mail-in voting is “an entirely different process,” which is used in states such as Oregon and Washington. Turco believes it’s much easier to administer in places like that, where the population is “lower than we have in some counties.” It would take time and resources to convert to a vote-by-mail process in New York, as well as a constitutional amendment to allow it.

New York state law makes the appointment of election commissioners and the hiring of their staff members a partisan process. County chairs of the two major political parties — typically Democratic and Republican, but determined by the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election —recommend names to county legislators, who can either vote as a whole body or take separate approval votes in their respective caucuses. Commissioners and every person they hire must be registered to that particular political party. Appointments are for two years.

Few fraud questions are fielded by Ulster County commissioners. Dittus laid out some of the steps used to combat it. Commissioners in all 62 counties have access to a spreadsheet listing every person who has voted and how, to make it easy to flag multiple votes. The absentee ballot would not be counted if, for example, a SUNY New Paltz student registered to vote here casts an affidavit ballot in Nassau County because they are learning remotely while they also mailed in an absentee ballot to Kingston. Voter registration details are uploaded within 15 minutes of being accepted, with multiple details to confirm identity, Duplicate registrations can be quickly flagged and cancelled. “It’s a good process in New York, but I can’t speak to other states,” said Dittus.

Turco’s perspective is different. “A mail-in paper ballot is most susceptible to fraud,” he said. “They are subject to challenge and invalidation. I’ve been doing this almost 24 years, and that’s where [challenges] come through.” People who support the idea of a mail-in system, he believes, “have never sat through the process.”

Voting deadlines

First-time voters, or those moving from another state, must register to vote by October  9.

New York residents who have moved to Ulster County must update their registration by October 14.

The absentee ballot application period opened August 20. Applications must be received by mail, email, or fax no later than October 27 or dropped off in person by November 2.

Absentee ballots must be postmarked by November 3, but sending it in sooner is always better. They may also be delivered by hand to the board of elections office in Kingston or dropped off at any voting or early-voting site.