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New state law allows all voters to request absentee ballots for November


New York will immediately allow all voters in the state to request a mail-in ballot for the November elections.

Governor Andrew Cuomo signed bills into law Thursday that, among other things, allow all eligible voters to cite the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason to vote absentee.

Voters can begin requesting absentee ballots right away from their local elections boards, citing the reason that they fear risks of contracting the coronavirus or any other contagious illness. It greatly expands the prior — and very limited — reasons that were permitted to obtain an absentee ballot.

The bills signed by Cuomo also allow ballots postmarked by Election Day, November 3, to be eligible to be counted, as long as elections officials receive them by November 10.

Government watchdogs praised the action. In a statement, Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, said the "critical reforms" will enable state and local elections boards to "plan and execute the most consequential election this century."

Jennifer Wilson with the League of Women Voters said her group has been deluged with inquiries about how to vote by mail in the November contest, and now she can offer concrete answers.

"We're thrilled that he signed them," Wilson said. "We're very happy that we can finally give people a straight answer."

Wilson said people should request an absentee ballot form now if they don't have one already. They can get the forms from local board of elections offices. Some, but not all, counties allow those requests to be made over the phone or by email. The League of Women Voters can also help voters obtain them.

But Wilson said voters should not be concerned if they do not get their ballots right away. The actual layout of the ballots will not be certified until September 9, so they won’t be ready to be mailed out until after that date.

"Don’t be nervous if you haven't got your ballot and it's early September," she said. "They really don’t send them out until closer to late September, early October."

Due to the changes, it's estimated that the volume of mail-in ballots could be 10 times higher than in past elections.

At a recent legislative hearing on the June primary elections, state Board of Elections commissioner Peter Kosinski expressed concern about the boards' capabilities to handle the sudden surge.

"It puts a tremendous burden on the system," Kosinski said on Aug. 11. "One which it was never really intended to support."

The bills signed by the governor do not provide for any additional funding for the boards of elections. The state is facing an over $14 billion deficit.

There are also concerns over the slowdown in mail deliveries after the removal of mailboxes and mail sorting machines by President Donald Trump's appointee as postmaster general, Louis DeJoy. And the postal service has written letters to states warning that there might be delays in handling the expected volume of mail-in ballots.

One of the measures signed will allow ballots to be counted, even if they are not properly postmarked, as long as they get to elections boards' offices by November 4.

Cuomo has talked about creating additional ballot drop boxes that would be collected directly by elections officials and circumvent the postal system, and some lawmakers have proposed legislation to do so. But the bills do not provide for any additional drop-off sites.

Wilson said ballots can be hand-delivered to any local board of elections office. Ballots can also be given directly to poll workers at the voter's designated early voting site, as well as at their regular polling place on Election Day.

Early voting begins October 24 and runs through November 1 at various sites that can be found on local elections boards' websites.

Karen DeWitt is Albany correspondent for WXXI News.