Many new laws changing the landscape of elections in New York

Yates County Board of Elections

YATES COUNTY – Since January of 2020, the New York State Legislature has adopted many new laws governing how elections are run in the state’s villages, cities and counties. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic precipitated several short-lived laws and executive orders that will expire Dec. 31, 2021. Every law and executive order has shifted the ground on which elections operate.

Early voters in Penn Yan numbered almost 400 on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020 with the line stretching around the Yates County Office Building at 9 a.m. when the polls opened at the Board of Elections office.

First, in 2019, Early Voting was created to enlarge the window when votes can be cast on the voting machines by 66 hours spread over a week and two weekends before Election Day. This applies to the county (including cities), state and federal political contests. Village and School Elections were not affected. The intent of the law and its operating amendments was to make voting more convenient and reduce the crush of voters in long lines at mostly urban polling sites on Election Day. In Yates County, where waiting to vote is seldom a problem, the central Early Voting site in the County Office Building has been under-utilized.

Second, Absentee Balloting, a well-established method to vote was expanded. Normally, Absentee Ballots were mostly used by voters who were out of town, like snowbirds, or unable to leave their residences. During the pandemic, many voters were afraid to leave home and the state was urging separation and isolation. As a consequence, in 2020, an executive order waived the usual application process. Anyone who was afraid of getting sick was able to have a ballot mailed to them upon request. In Yates County, approximately 30% of voters in the hotly contested presidential election in 2020 voted with Absentee Ballots. Boards of Elections across New York State expect that more voters will utilize this voting method as they become familiar with its convenience.

Third, the state legislature has approved legislation to make “no excuse” Absentee Balloting permanent. While this begins to resemble vote by mail seen in other states, it still requires voters to apply for the Absentee Ballot. Details of this change are still being worked out and it will go into effect in 2022 if approved by the voters across New York State on the ballot in November. Another bill requires the state to open an electronic portal through which voters can obtain the “no excuse ballot” without a signature and requires County Boards of Elections to accept various requests for Absentee Ballots by fax, phone and email. Overall, the intent here is to make voting much easier for everyone, especially persons who “live” on their computer and cellphone.

Fourth, a new law allows counties in concert with their Boards of Elections to combine and consolidate election districts into larger groups of eligible voters. This bill recognizes that more voters will be diverted to Absentee Balloting and Early Voting from Election Day. It also recognizes the technological evolution where electronic voting machines and electronic poll books are able to process voters faster.

In Yates County, voters have begun to experience this shift in the recent four elections. Use of Absentee Ballots has risen, and according to Commissioner Robert Brechko, is likely to remain high.

Democratic Election Commissioner Robert Brechko

With legislation requiring absentee ballots to be counted and posted on Election Day along with the results from early voting and Election Day in person voting. This should satisfy voters who are concerned about not having their votes count on Election night. Presently these votes are not counted until a week or so later.

Most of these new laws have required changes in procedures locally and have caused expenses to increase. As a result, the Commissioners have researched and adopted procedures and changes allowed by law that will reduce some of the increased expenses. Costs have been significantly reduced by using Electronic Poll Books and ballot on-demand technology, instead of preprinted ballots. Other expenses have been reduced by serving several election districts in one town polling site and thereby reducing the number of required workers.

As voting technologies have shifted from the old lever voting machines to paper ballots and verifiable electronic scanning, the state has seen the need to constantly evolve Election Law. As ease of getting around by car and as the rural and city economies have changed, going to vote has changed as well. Commissioner Robert Schwarting cites the decade-long shift to the electronic age as one of the biggest cause of change in elections. That and the nationwide growth in vote-by-mail is causing this big wave of change for voters in Yates County.

Republican Election Commissioner Robert Schwarting

The Commissioners’ crystal ball seems to show more people voting by mail and the few more underutilized and expensive to operate polling places will be combined into easily accessible nearby poll sites. All new state laws are pointing toward a county centralized, electronic, Internet supported voting system where voting is by mail and there are a limited number of Election Day sites to vote or drop off an already completed ballot.

Commissioners Schwarting and Brechko warn that there will be some growing pains, some duplicative expenses and voter concern as the State Legislature changes Election Law and a new order evolves. Regrettably, some of the change is driven by the needs of larger urbanized counties, and creates problems and expenses for smaller, more rural counties. At the same time, some of the changes present opportunities in the long run for improved voter engagement and reduced costs. The Commissioners agree that shifting ground, while unstable for a time, is not always a bad thing.