Cuomo Pledges Order to Advance Absentee Voting

People wearing masks enjoy Flushing Meadows-Corona park in Queens, New York, on Thursday. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

MANHATTAN (CN) — With two months to go until New Yorkers vote in their delayed presidential primary, Governor Andrew Cuomo said he will sign an executive order to ensure they can cast absentee ballots due to the public health risks posed by Covid-19.

“It makes no sense to me to tell people you have to put your life at risk, violate social distancing to come out to vote,” Cuomo said Friday. 

Polling places will still be open June 23, Cuomo said, and there will also be streamlined options for mailing in ballots. 

Cuomo had already postponed the election, which was supposed to take place on April 28, and he already issued an executive order declaring that the pandemic was just cause for everyone to vote absentee.

Craig Burnett, a political science professor at Hofstra University on Long Island, expressed approval for Cuomo’s latest executive order.

“This makes sense to me,” Burnett said in a phone interview Friday, adding that a remote primary in New York could be a “dry run” for the November general election and help the state lay the infrastructure for voting at home.

Thanks to an additional order announced Friday, all registered New Yorkers should watch their mailboxes for a postage-paid application for an absentee ballot. Once they fill out and send back those applications, they should receive an absentee ballot. 

Jennifer Wilson, the deputy director of the League of Women Voters of New York State, called the order a step in the right direction, amid the seeming void of what is still unknown.

“We’re glad that he said he’s still pushing to keep in-person voting, because we think that will help a lot with some of these ambiguities,” Wilson said in a phone interview Friday. 

Wilson noted that she’s not yet sure how the order will affect people with disabilities or those whose primary language is one other than English, and added that pre-paid postage on the ballot applications will come at a high financial cost to the state.  

Weeks ago in Georgia, the ACLU sued the state for failing to offer paid postage on mail-in ballots. As Wilson’s group noted in a recent letter to members of Congress, New York is eligible for $20 million in election assistance through the CARES Act stimulus fund. Wilson emphasized, however, that the state still must take specific action to trigger the funds.

New York state otherwise has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country. To vote absentee previously, voters had to demonstrate either that they were physically absent; suffered temporary or permanent illness or disability or were caring for someone who had; were a patient or resident at a VA hospital; or were detained in jail or prison. The executive order announced Friday means all registered voters will automatically be mailed an application for an absentee ballot. 

Hofstra’s Burnett noted that, rather than depressing voter turnout in an uncontested primary election, the applications for absentee ballots could actually nudge people into voting or updating their registration information, or even remind them of the June election. He also said it’s not yet clear whether voting by mail benefits any particular political party. While the practice is thought by some — including President Trump — to benefit Democrats, Burnett pointed out that elderly Americans, who tend to be more conservative voters, might vote in higher numbers if they don’t have to leave the house.

Wilson said she doesn’t fault Cuomo for waiting this long to issue the executive order allowing automatic absentee applications to be mailed out.

“I want to say it could be done sooner, but at the same time I think everyone was sort of hopefully optimistic that everything would be taken care of by the end of June,” she said of the virus. She added that she’s hopeful the state Board of Elections can handle the extra work, but that her group is mobilizing to inform voters on the complexities of casting absentee ballots. 

“We’re concerned that a lot of people are not going to know what to do,” she said. 

Jarret Berg, a lawyer and co-founder of the nonprofit Vote Early NY, was also pleased with Cuomo’s latest executive order, which he said reduces the barrier to obtaining an absentee ballot. But he cautioned it’s one step of many.

“There’s still a ton of work to be done to make sure people actually have access to that ballot,” Berg said in a phone interview Friday. Since New York does not yet have automatic voter registration, for example, the state has a “shoddy” registration database, he noted.

Also Friday, Cuomo announced that the state’s Covid-19 curve remains essentially flat, and said the strain of the virus that has walloped his state in recent months likely came from Europe, probably Italy. He quoted estimates that say the U.S. already had 28,000 cases in February and that 10,000 of them were in New York. 

“The horse had already left the barn by the time we moved,” Cuomo said Friday. Though he has repeatedly touted his own quick actions in shutting down the state, the first confirmed Covid-19 case in New York was March 1, and Cuomo’s “New York on Pause” order did not go into effect for over three more weeks, on March 22. 

Also Friday, Cuomo repeated his desire to double the state’s Covid-19 testing capacity from 20,000 per day to 40,000 per day. 

In Manhattan, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was hesitant to tout antibody testing, which is meant to determine if a person has already had the virus. 

“I think it could be very valuable,” he said, adding that not all antibody tests are created equal and the city wants to make sure it uses the most reliable one. 

“The science still isn’t 100% clear,” de Blasio said. “It’s not a rock-solid guarantee, even if you test positive, that … doesn’t 100% guarantee you can’t get it again.”

But city Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot said she thought the numbers projected by the state’s antibody test this week make sense. The preliminary data from the state testing indicate over 21% of New Yorkers have had the virus. Previously she said she thought over a million Big Apple residents had been infected.

“I think that number makes a lot of sense, that it’s been at least that,” she said. The city had been estimating about 15–20% of the population had been infected. 

De Blasio said city police, firefighters and health care workers would be prioritized for antibody testing. 

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