Virus-Struck New York Eyes Absentee Ballots for Primary

MANHATTAN (CN) — New York Attorney General Letitia James called Monday for automatic absentee voting as the presidential primary draws nearer in the U.S. epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic.

More than half of all current U.S. cases are in New York, and more than half of the state’s cases are in New York City.

New York’s presidential elections fall late in the primary season, on April 28. Experts have predicted the state’s coronavirus cases will peak right around that time, Governor Andrew Cuomo said last week.

“Voters shouldn’t have to choose between their health and the right to cast a ballot,” said James in a statement Monday.

“If we act now, we have more than a month before the presidential primary and numerous special elections across our state to take action and ensure every eligible New York voter receives an absentee ballot.”

A cyclist rides his bicycle down the middle of a main road in downtown New York on Sunday. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

The April 28 election includes the presidential primary and several special elections to fill seats in Congress and the state legislature.

New York has one of the most restrictive absentee voting requirements in the country — 33 other states allow absentee voting without a specified reason, James’ office said Monday. In New York, however, voters must meet one of six criteria — including physical absence, illness, or jail or prison detention — to qualify for an absentee ballot.

Though some municipalities in the state have already declared that the Covid-19 pandemic is a legitimate reason to request an absentee ballot, James’ call applies to the entire state. Cuomo could sign a new executive order on March 29 that would extend through April 28, she suggested, suspending election laws that limit absentee-ballot acquisition to the six criteria.

Cuomo declared a state of emergency on March 7 that allows him to temporarily suspend or modify any law if it inhibits the state’s ability to cope with the disaster, but James noted that those emergency powers last only for 30 days, meaning they would expire before the primary.

The threat posed by the new coronavirus, she continued, is so grave that allowing polling places to be open on April 28 constitutes a public health hazard. She also pointed out that, if voting proceeds as usual, turnout could be low due to people staying home because they don’t want to get sick.

“Let’s make it easier for every voter to cast their vote without spreading the coronavirus and jeopardizing public health,” James said in her statement. “Democracy should not be suspended if there is a safe alternative.”

Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

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