We speak with Jennifer Wilson, deputy director of the League of Women Voters of New York State. The non-partisan good-government group is part of a coalition called Let New York Vote, which is advocating for a variety of measures to ensure voting continues this year despite the pandemic.
We’re mostly looking at voting for June and also for November, and making sure that voters have ample access to the ballot while the ongoing Coronavirus outbreak is happening. So making sure that voters know what their options are, making sure that they have options to vote, making sure that if they do choose to vote in one of these “unconventional” ways, if they want to vote by absentee, they’re not going to risk their ballot being thrown out and making sure that what the governor has done so far, is still going to apply in November, since it is looking like either this is going to continue until November or we might have a resurgence come fall.
Now, just to bring people up to date. So far, people who are registered to vote in the party primary in June, will be receiving an automatic absentee ballot, right?
Well, they’ll be receiving the application for the ballot, which is one of those things that’s already confusing to voters. Because here in New York State you have to apply if you want to vote by absentee. So what they’ll be getting in the mail and what many voters who qualified to vote in June have already gotten in the mail is essentially an application form or request form to fill out, that also has in there some information about these new executive orders and rules that are happening.
Now, in a normal election year, if we do end up going to absentee ballots to decide a race, those ballots are often challenged, they’re looked at individually at the board of elections and a process that can take a few days, sometimes. How do we make sure that these ballots that are done by mail are going to be counted as a normal vote would be counted?
Yeah, that’s definitely one of our big concerns and Let New York Vote, that has been one of the major legislative priorities is ensuring that balance aren’t just thrown out. In New York State, we usually don’t even count the ballots unless it’s a really close election. So when those absentee ballots are opened, there is a Democratic County Board of Elections Commissioner, a Republican Democrat- Republican County Commissioner, and then a whole team of lawyers for whatever candidates are having that close election, which is why so many of the ballots are thrown out. And another reason why is because there’s really small rules and really small things that can happen to your ballot that can cause it to be thrown out: If you don’t use black or blue ink. If you mark anywhere outside of the main areas of the bow, like if you don’t correctly fill in a circle, if you don’t sign your name on the exterior envelope that the ballot has to go in, if it’s folded or creased, if it’s stained. There’s all these really small human error things that can allow your absentee ballot to be thrown out. So what we’re hoping is that the Senate and Assembly will pick up some of these bills that will make it so that if you have any of these little mistakes, if there’s any of these little things that happened to your ballot, it’s not just going to be thrown out and not counted.
What about in person voting?
Yes, we are hoping to still have in person voting. We have actually been pushing as the coalition to double the amount of early voting time, to have instead of just nine days to have 18 days, so that there would be ample time for people to go whenever they wanted. There wouldn’t be any surge of voters on any particular day. We’re hopeful that we’ll still have in person voting. Where hopefully we’ll still will have double the days but not as optimistic that we’ll- That will wind up happening. But we have heard some pushback from the State Board of election commissioners that they would rather actually have less days of voting so that they don’t have to find as many poll workers, so that they don’t have to worry as much about PPE, and it’s not as onerous on counties to have all of these days of voting, but we think it’s terrible idea. The more voting, the more in person voting opportunities, the better. We already know a lot of people are going to vote absentee rather than in person. So let’s make sure that there’s lots of space, that there’s lots of time and that there’s lots of opportunities for people to go at staggered times so we don’t have a huge surge of people at the polls.
Um, I think it’s fair to say since the pandemic really took hold, after the state budget was passed, that Governor Cuomo has been running the state largely by executive order and while lawmakers are, you know, back home, doing various things, they haven’t been here to vote on many of these measures. So why do you need the legislature to come back and take up some of these measures if the governor so far has been doing everything by executive order?
Yeah, a lot of his orders have been limited in their time frame. So like I mentioned earlier, you know, in November, if this is still a problem, then we’re gonna have to extend all of these measures again. And it’s not to say that he’s not going to extend them, but it’s a lot easier if you just codify them into law. And a lot of the bills that the Senate and Assembly are looking at, are going to make it so that if this happens again in, in years in the future, these rules will still apply. They basically say any sort of health crisis or emergency these rules now apply. And some of the things that the governor hasn’t taken up, the Senate and Assembly is also looking to tackle small business loans, rent is a huge issue that they’re looking to tackle. So there’s certain things that the governor hasn’t done that the Senate and Assembly is definitely considering and going to be most likely taking up this week.
President Trump has said, without evidence, that this type of vote by mail increases voter fraud. What’s the League of Women Voters have to say about that?
Well, we are nonpartisan. So I won’t say anything directly related to the President. But I will say that this is a very common myth or misconception, you know, whatever you want to say. Yes, when we see fraud, it typically is vote by mail. But the percentage of fraud that we see is so, so minuscule, and typically the kind of fraud that you do see, not necessarily here in New York State, but in other states is people filling out the mail ballot on behalf of, whether it’s somebody who is a senior citizen or someone who maybe doesn’t really vote on their own normally, they have someone else there, their aide or something, do it for them who’s not maybe necessarily going to listen. But again, the percentage of this happening is so tiny and minuscule. It’s less than a decimal of a percentage of that happening.
Let me just sort of bring up my own experience here and get you to react to it. I’m not registered in a party, so I won’t be taking part in the June primary. But as we speak today, the school district is mailing ballots out to everyone to vote on the proposed school budget here in the city of Albany. Why can’t we just do all elections this way? Why does it have to be a pandemic? I mean, it seems to me and I’m someone who does vote, but Americans don’t vote by and large, a huge number of them stay home every year. If we have this infrastructure to mail people ballots, won’t that increase voter participation?
No, I mean, that’s a great point. And we agree that having the option to be able to vote by mail is extremely important. However, here in New York State, it’s not just statute, it’s in our state constitution, that you have to apply. You have to have an “excuse” to be able to vote by mail. So in the future, we Kane get rid of that “excuse” in the constitution. There was a constitutional amendment that passed two years ago, has to be passed again another time, and then has to be a ballot referendum. But the infrastructure to vote by mail is very cumbersome. It’s even this is going to be a huge lift for county boards of elections, which is why we’re saying we should still have in person, to have the vote by mail infrastructure that these all vote by mail states have. It’s, it’s humongous to onboard that. And it takes a couple of years of onboarding. So we think, yes, that should be a more expanded option for this year. But it’s not something that we can do overnight to have all vote by mail, which is why we still want in person. And there’s lots of populations who don’t like to vote by mail, they prefer to go in person. I’m thinking specifically of the disability community, who maybe don’t live with someone who can help them fill out their ballot or if they want to do it themselves in person. Also people with any sort of language barrier issues knowing that when they go to a poll site, they have the ballot in many different languages instead of trying to figure out, how can I request a ballot another language come to me just clears up a lot of these confusions around voting.
You know, as more states move toward a mail in ballot, at least for this year, it’s not too hard to imagine a- You know, we get two to three in the morning on the night of the election. And we still have no idea who’s going to win the White House, who’s going to be running the Senate. You know, who’s going to have control of the House of Representatives, let alone what happens in the state legislature. I mean, I suppose that’s a potential downside here.
Yeah, no, it’s something we’re definitely think, thinking about. And to your point earlier about vowels being thrown out. There’s a huge concern over that too over- Because we don’t have this infrastructure in place. There’s no way right now to alert voters if their ballot is thrown out, which is one of the things the Let New York Vote coalition was looking at, how can we make sure if, if someone’s ballot is thrown out for whatever reason, they didn’t sign correctly, they signed in the wrong place, whatever the reason is, how can we let that voter know, “Hey, your vote didn’t count, you need to contact your board of elections and let them know, yes you, yes, you want to vote.” So there, you know, it’s a- The vote by mail system is great in theory and in the states where they have it. It works really, really well. I’m thinking of Washington and Colorado specifically, it saves money in the long run. But to get to the point where those states are at will take New York many years, get there.
Well, we’re going to learn a lot about how this all works this year, I think, good, bad and otherwise, as a country. Um Jennifer, let me quickly ask you about the return of lawmakers to Albany this week. It’s really been a strange legislative session. Normally, they’d be just wrapping up this week, next week, but they really haven’t been here too much since early April. So from your organization’s perspective, what’s still left on the table here?
Yeah, I mean, I think most organizations have sort of put their non-COVID related issues as side. So all of our good government stuff, you know, automatic voter registration, we were hoping to have happen this year, all of our different transparency issues we were hoping to have happen this year, we’ve really put on the back burner and just focused on any legislation relating to COVID, which for from the League standpoint, was anything voting related during the emergency, state of emergency. So I think there was a lot that didn’t get done. I don’t see it happening between now and you know, the end of the, the entire year because the state is all, all the other offices are up for election right now. But I think that it’s important that the legislature did go home to their districts because there was a lot of work to be done locally to make sure that localities all around the state are prepared and that their voices were being heard at the local level by state officials to make sure that now that they are back in Albany, they know exactly what they need to do to serve their localities.
Lastly, you know, the Capitol has been closed to the public for many weeks now. How has this impacted your job and your role? I mean, you can’t just go into a conference room right now and get, you know, 15 or 20 lawmakers together.
Yeah, it’s been difficult. But you know, again, they’ve been focused on constituent issues and at the League, we’ve been really focused on education of voters to let them know of all these changes that have been going on. We have a text service now, we have our electronic ballot guide, vote411.org, where we have all information about candidates and races. So voters who get their ballot in the mail, know what they’re going to see on the ballot, have information about all the candidates know who they’re going to be voting for. And then also educating people about the new process of- Well, not new but the process now for applying to vote for an absentee ballot, what they need to do what they need to expect and how to make sure when they get that ballot, it’s not going to get erroneously thrown out because they wrote in the wrong color ink on the on the ballot.
Well, that’s Jennifer Wilson, and she’s with the League of Women Voters of New York State. It’ll be quite a year for you. Let’s check in again soon.
Sounds great. Thank you.