Voting by mail in New York? Avoid these mistakes
Hundreds of thousands of New York voters will do something this year many of them have never done before: vote by mail.
Counties across the state have been flooded with absentee ballot requests for the Nov. 3 election, in large part because of a temporary new law inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic that essentially expanded eligibility to all voters.
More than 330,000 voters had requested an absentee ballot as of late last month through New York’s recently launched online portal, which was launched in late August and allows voters to fill out a quick form to formally apply for a mail-in ballot, according to the state Board of Elections.
That number itself is incomplete: It doesn’t include New York City or Erie County, which both have their own portals. Nor does it account for those who have applied for an absentee ballot by mail or in person with their county, as well as those who haven’t yet applied.
If you do choose to vote by mail, be careful: Failure to follow directions could result in your ballot being ruled ineligible.
For the 2016 presidential election, 22,849 of the 405,151 New York voters who cast an absentee ballot had their vote rejected for any number of reasons, such as a forgotten signature or an unsealed envelope, according to a survey by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
Since then, however, there’s been some good news for voters: A legal settlement between the state Board of Elections and the League of Women Voters requires counties to allow voters to fix certain mistakes before ballots are counted.
“If there’s an issue with your signature or you didn’t seal your inner envelope or if you forgot to sign, those are all now curable issues in New York state,” said Jennifer Wilson, deputy director of the League of Women Voters’ New York chapter.
“Voters will be notified and able to address them.”
Follow the directions
Yes, it’s obvious, but it’s true; the best way to ensure your absentee ballot is counted is to follow the instructions that come with it. Your absentee ballot will come with a return envelope, a security envelope, and the ballot itself. The instructions with your ballot will tell you to do the following, according to the state Board of Elections:
- Complete your ballot by filling in the bubble of your candidate of choice in each election. Make sure to pay attention to the instructions for each individual race on your ballot.
- Fold the completed ballot and put it in the security envelope. (The security envelope is the one with a place for your signature.)
- Sign and date the security envelope in the space designated for the voter’s signature. (If you didn’t require assistance to complete your ballot, you can ignore the other signature slot.)
- Seal the security envelope. (This is important!)
- Put the security envelope in the return envelope, which is the one that is addressed to your local board of elections. The return envelope should also be marked “Official Election Mail.”
- Seal the return envelope.
- Return your ballot in the envelopes by mailing it in—make sure you apply a stamp!—or bringing it in person to your county board of elections office, an early voting site, or an Election Day poll site.
This is probably the most important step. In order for your ballot to be counted, it has to be in the hands of your county board of elections before the prescribed deadline.
- If you’re returning the ballot by mail, it must be postmarked no later than Nov. 3 and received by your county board of elections by Nov. 10.
- If you’re returning the ballot in-person to your county board of elections office, it must be returned by Nov. 3 at 9 p.m.
- If you’re returning the ballot to an early voting site, you must return it during normal polling hours from Oct. 24 through Nov. 1.
- If you’re returning your ballot to a polling place on Election Day, you have until 9 p.m. on Nov. 3.
- If you’re mailing your ballot, the earlier the better.
A note on the state Board of Elections website recommends mailing out your ballot at least seven days before Nov. 3 to ensure your county gets it on time.
“Obviously, if you don’t get your ballot in on time, it can be disqualified,” Wilson said.
Make a mistake? Try to correct it
In years past, an errant mark or an unsealed envelope or using a pencil instead of a pen could leave your entire mail-in ballot disqualified.
The state Board of Elections’ settlement this year with the League of Women Voters, however, makes many of those errors “curable,” meaning you should have the opportunity to correct them.
Under the settlement, a county board of elections must contact a voter if they forgot to sign the security envelope, the signature doesn’t match the one on file or if they put the ballot directly into the return envelope.
The voter would then be given a chance to correct those errors or vote in person.
The settlement also prevents counties from throwing out ballots with signatures in the wrong place or accompanied by the wrong date, as well as those filled out in pencil instead of pen.
In those cases, the voter doesn’t have to correct the ballots; the county will just count them, according to the settlement.
How do I request an absentee ballot?
There are two ways to do it.
- Visit absenteeballot.elections.ny.gov and fill out the online form.
- Contact your county’s board of elections by phone, email, fax, mail or in person. You can find your county board’s contact information at www.elections.ny.gov/CountyBoards.html.
Those requesting a ballot online or by phone, fax or mail must do so before Oct. 27. But the state Board of Elections recommends you do so by Oct. 19 to ensure the U.S. Postal Service has enough time to get you a ballot before Election Day.
Those requesting a ballot in person at their county elections office have until Nov. 2 to do so.
If you’re requesting an absentee ballot for reasons having to do with COVID-19—even if it’s just a fear of catching it—make sure you pick the “temporary illness” option when asked for your reasoning.