Updated: 10/29/20 – 12:18 P.M.
CORNING, NY (WSKG) – New York expanded early voting options for the general election. Although, boards of elections in the Southern Tier have not consistently communicated this access to voters.
A bill, S8015D, passed in July and allows voters to use COVID-19 as a temporary illness to request a mail-in ballot for the general election.
Six counties in the region require a reason to request an absentee ballot, however, nearly every county left COVID-19 information off of a mandatory mailing because an executive order did not expressly say to include COVID-19 in its language.
“There was numerous executive orders,” said Vicky Olin, the Republican Commissioner for the Steuben County Board of Elections. “It was- we couldn’t even keep track of them.”
Each county board of elections has leeway with design and language to incorporate what it decides to include in its mailings. Specifically, Allegany County used its postcard as the absentee application itself and Steuben County included Election Law 8-104 on its postcard to notify voters about electioneering near a poll site.
Chenango County resident, Sandra Powell, grew concerned when she saw that the county’s postcard mailing about early voting options did not have COVID-19 listed. She wanted to make sure every eligible voter was able to vote.
“There’s a lot of people that can’t get out to a polling station or they’d be afraid to with COVID-19,” said Powell. ”And they won’t realize that they can use an absentee ballot and use COVID-19 as a reason on it.”*
County boards of elections said communications went out to each voter and information was available online or on social media, such as Facebook. But it could be difficult to find that information.
For example, Allegany County did not include COVID-19 information on its website when WSKG initially asked about it, but it was later included. Delaware County does not mention COVID-19 and links directly to the absentee application on its website.
The Tioga County Board of Elections does not have a Facebook page and Chenango County Board of Elections has not updated its Facebook page since June.
Also, postcards were mailed to households instead of each registered voter despite the verbiage in the executive order to do the latter.
Other barriers persist in the region, such as information about where and how to deliver an absentee ballot rather than mail it to local boards of elections.
Drop boxes were part of an executive order, but are not uniformly accessible.
In Schuyler County, voters place their absentee ballots in an inbox inside the board of elections office during building hours.
“It leaves all of these holes in the implementation of the law where you might have disenfranchisement strictly based off of the ability for the county to interpret a law really loosely,” said Jennifer Wilson, Deputy Director with the League of Women Voters of New York State.
And there is little oversight by the state board of elections to correct these issues.
“If a county is blatantly not obeying one of the new rules or regulations, the state board, the worst thing they can do is write them a letter and say, hey, you guys aren’t listening to what the law is,” Wilson said. “That’s the most that they can do, is to write them a strongly worded letter that says get into compliance.”
The Governor is the only officer who can remove commissioners from their post according to New York State law Title 2 Section 3-200.
The New York State Board of Elections did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Despite inconsistencies, absentee ballot requests were up by more than double the amount during the 2016 general election in counties such as Steuben and Chemung.
The last day to request an absentee ballot in-person is on Monday, Nov. 2. All absentee ballots can be returned to any polling site or county board of elections office during early voting or on Election Day.
All 18 senators that opposed S8015D were Republican, including Senators Tom O’Mara (R-D58), Fred Akshar (R-D52), George Borrello (R-D57) and James Seward (R-D51).
S8015D will expire on Jan. 1, 2022.
*This story has been updated to include a comment from a concerned Chenango County resident.