Gotham Gazette

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Protect Democracy with Vote-by-Mail and Online Registration

voter reg day1

Next potential steps for voting in New York (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The following is an excerpt from the 2019-20 NYC Votes Voter Analysis Report

Novel and frightening barriers to voting have the potential to upend the entire crucial 2020 election year in every state. The challenges of in-person voting during a pandemic are clear and significant. Elections traditionally provide a time for citizens to gather together in large numbers to engage in the practice of democracy. But restrictions on public gatherings recommended by public health authorities in response to the spread of COVID-19 cast regular poll site operations in a new light. 

In jurisdictions around the country, many voters wait packed together in long lines to make their voices heard. Institutions that regularly serve as poll sites may be justifiably concerned about allowing potential carriers to pass through their doors—especially senior centers or schools. While early voting opportunities can provide space for voters to follow physical distancing guidelines, they offer no such protection to the dedicated poll workers who interact with each voter requesting a ballot.

In response, many election experts and advocates have advocated for prompt and widespread adoption of vote by mail.

Washington State, for instance, mails ballots to every registered voter 18 days before each election. Voters can mail their ballots back or return them to designated ballot drop boxes by the end of Election Day. Four other states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, and Utah—conduct all-mail elections.

In New York State, mail-in or absentee voting is available only to voters who can attest to a specific reason they will be unable to appear at the polls, either for absence or illness. By executive order, Governor Cuomo expanded the meaning of “temporary illness” to cover those seeking to stem the spread of COVID-19, and mandated that every voter should receive an absentee ballot application in the mail. However, its effects are temporary. As issued, it applies only to elections through June 23. By whatever means are available, expanded access to vote by mail should be offered to New Yorkers on a permanent basis.

What we’ve learned in this moment is that universally-accessible vote by mail is not merely a turnout-boosting convenience. It can provide necessary resilience for our democratic system when the logistics of in-person balloting become impossible or impractical to maintain. It is one of a series of critical measures that should be available to administrators to ensure the continuity of our elections. New York should act promptly and decisively to implement it here.

The COVID-19 response effort is also shifting the way that organizers and campaigners approach the work of engaging voters. Traditional methods of registering voters will need to be rethought and campaign plans will need to be redesigned to adapt to the reality of an election year conducted during a pandemic. At minimum, a response that preserves New Yorkers’ access to elections through crises will require New York to finally end its reliance on a paper-based voter registration system that depends heavily on face-to-face interaction to bring new voters into the democratic process.

Times of crisis can force hard choices upon us; they demand we articulate our values and protect the things we value most. Elections are essential, particularly and especially in these difficult moments. In just the last twenty years, New Yorkers have come together to vote in the wake of a terrorist attack and in the aftermath of a destructive storm. Each instance demonstrates anew that our election laws and systems badly need flexibility to ensure elections can adapt effectively to public challenges like this one.

Democracy will persist — if we choose it.

Amy Loprest is the Executive Director of the NYC Campaign Finance Board, which runs the nonpartisan voter engagement initiative NYC Votes. Read the full 2019-20 NYC Votes Voter Analysis Report. On Twitter @NYCCFB & @NYCVotes.

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