Thousands may have to reapply for ballot
A bureaucratic boondoggle involving the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing thousands of New York voters to reapply for an absentee ballot.
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ALBANY — Thousands of New York voters who applied for an absentee ballot prior to Aug. 20 by claiming "temporary illness" will have to reapply in order to ensure they get a ballot for the November election.
That includes many voters who checked a box requesting a ballot for the November election when they applied to vote absentee in the June primary, according to the state Board of Elections.
Some voters in several New York counties, including Monroe and Orleans, have received letters in recent weeks notifying them that their prior absentee applications were invalid and urged them to reapply.
The confusion is steeped in a bureaucratic boondoggle tied to the COVID-19 pandemic that has left some puzzled about whether they will receive a ballot for the presidential election.
"I've always had a pretty good experience with voting here, without any long lines at polling places or anything like that," said Julie Lane, a Brighton resident who was notified Sept. 3 that she would have to reapply.
"To have this happen, I was sort of taken back."
COVID-19 measures led to confusion
A confluence of executive orders and legislative action meant to ease voter fears amid the COVID-19 pandemic helped lead to the absentee mix-up.
In April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order allowing any voter to request a mail-in ballot for the June 23 primary. Citing the COVID-19 outbreak, the order allowed all voters to claim "temporary illness," one of a handful of reasons the state allows absentee votes.
After the primary, the rules reverted back to existing state law, which only allows voters to claim "temporary illness" if they actually have an illness.
The state Legislature moved to change that in July, passing a bill that extends the "temporary illness" provision to anyone at risk of catching a respiratory illness, such as COVID-19, through 2021, including this November's election.
The bill didn't take effect, however, until Aug. 20, when Cuomo signed it into law.
It all means many voters who applied for a November ballot prior to Aug. 20 by checking the "temporary illness" box will likely have to reapply to ensure they receive a general-election ballot.
"As a result, there was a time period between the Primary and August 20th where there was no COVID-19 excuse available to request an absentee ballot," Board of Elections spokesman John Conklin wrote in an email.
Further complicating the matter is the state's absentee application includes a check-off box to receive a November ballot. Many voters checked off that box in addition to the primary election when they applied for a ballot in June.
Since those applications were filed before the new state law took effect and Cuomo's prior order only applied to the primary, some counties are ruling them invalid.
Steuben County Democratic election commissioner Kelly Penziul, who wrapped up her term as president of the state Elections Commissioners Association on Thursday, said many voters didn't understand Cuomo's initial executive order only applied to the primary.
"So when they applied, they marked down the primary and general election," she said. "Anyone that applied for the general, we made sure to send out a letter along with a new application letting them know they have to apply separately for the general."
Thousands of voters notified
About 17,000 people in Monroe County alone checked the November box when applying for the June primary, according to the county Board of Elections.
At first, board staff thought the applications were valid, according to a memo distributed by Monroe County Democratic election commissioner Jackie Ortiz, who took office late last month. But after discovering that wasn't the case, the county board mailed notices last week to the affected voters.
A similar notice went out in other counties, too, including Orleans and Steuben. Some smaller counties, including Jefferson, had a relatively small number of voters check both boxes, allowing them to reach out individually and notify them of the mix-up.
Ortiz said voters who received the notice are encouraged to reapply via the state's new online application portal or by contacting the county board.
"We apologize for any confusion," she wrote in her memo. "We can assist a few different ways but do need to hear from voters by phone and or email if they have not gone onto the portal themselves to ensure we have confirmation of their permission to complete on their behalf."
Counties handled situation differently
The Ontario County Board of Elections anticipates the number of voters who cast mail-in ballots in this election will surpass the 12,000 who voted this way in the June primary.
The Board of Elections this week sent each registered voter a postcard via mail with the latest information, which includes the three ways to vote — by mail, early voting or in person on Election Day — as well as details about each option and how to apply for an absentee ballot.
Jude Seymour, Jefferson County's Republican election commissioner, said his county — like many in New York — does not question a voter's excuse when they apply for an absentee.
So for voters who simply checked "temporary illness," the county deemed their application valid. But for voters who wrote in "COVID" or anything similar before Aug. 20, the county was forced to reject it.
"I'm just glad this is behind us," Seymour said. "I understand the reasoning behind why the executive order limited the length of the application, but by changing the rules, briefly reverting to the old rules and changing them again, we really confused the voter."
Lane, the Brighton resident, posted the notice she received from Monroe County in a Facebook page for residents of her town. She was relieved, in some ways, to hear others had received the same notice.
At the suggestion of others on the Facebook page, Lane reapplied for her ballot through the state's online portal, which allows voters to quickly apply to vote via absentee.
"Being prepared and trying to do something ahead of time and being ready for the elections didn't work out in my favor for once," she said.