Voting in New York is a work in progress. In the past year, the state adopted a new Voting Rights Act, but its voters shot down an opportunity to make mail-in voting broadly available.
In these midterms, advocates’ most pressing concern is the lack of education around unnecessarily complicated absentee ballot changes.
Deadlines to request absentee ballots are now almost a week earlier than before. And a new law that will require more New Yorkers to submit provisional ballots — increasing the risk that their votes won’t count — isn’t widely understood, advocates agree.
“There are zero dollars allocated in educating about election changes, and that’s a major sin and oversight of lawmakers in Albany who made the laws,” said Jarret Berg, co-founder of VoteEarlyNY. “If there’s no money for education, who’s bearing the burden of the learning curve? … Civic education groups, voter protection teams and candidate campaigns are left to fill that void, and unfortunately, in that vacuum, we need to combat all sorts of election misinformation as well.”
The trouble with absentee voting
New York doesn’t have no-excuse absentee voting. That means those casting their ballots by mail must qualify based on a list of limited excuses.
This changed temporarily in 2020, when then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo allowed “risk of illness, including COVID-19” — which anyone in the state could cite — to be a valid excuse to get a vote-by-mail ballot. Gov. Kathy Hochul continued this exception through 2022.
Absentee voting for all could have been a permanent practice in the state. But when the issue showed up on New Yorkers’ ballots last November, they rejected it, along with same-day voter registration.
About this series
This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
“The people of the state of New York voted — during a pandemic — to restrict their own rights,” he said. “More people in Brooklyn left that question blank than voted no, whereas in Nassau County, far more people, proportionately, turned out and voted no.”
More than a fifth of New York ballots cast in November 2020 were by mail (up from just 4% in 2016), but the absentee voting process hasn’t been seamless. It took six weeks to count the votes during the state’s June 2020 primary. Plus, the unexpected demand caused almost 20% of New York City’s absentee ballots to get disqualified, and about 100,000 ballots in Brooklyn were misprinted.
Earlier deadlines for ballot applications
A recent piece of legislation pushed up the deadline for mailed absentee ballot requests.
Eligible New Yorkers used to be able to send a request for a mail-in ballot seven days before the election. The new law requires the application to be received by the Board of Elections 15 days in advance.
“We’re going from a ‘mail by’ policy to a ‘receive by’ rule. This is anti-voter,” Berg said. “Now the voter is held responsible for things outside their control, like … how quickly USPS handles election mail. It’s not the rule we hold people to for Tax Day.”
New absentee, provisional ballot laws make voting confusing
Recent changes to absentee and provisional ballot rules are likely to confuse some voters, advocates said.
Voters qualifying to vote by mail used to be able to request an absentee ballot and later decide to show up to the polls to vote in person. All returned absentee ballots were verified after Election Day. When poll workers, using voter rolls, identified that the voter already cast an in-person ballot, the absentee ballot would be rejected, and only the in-person vote counted.
The new policy prioritizes returned absentee ballots in the interest of faster counting.
“Now, if you request an absentee ballot and it doesn’t show up — or you lose it or destroy it or spill coffee on it — then try to show up to vote in person, you have to vote provisional,” Berg said. “The issue here is that provisional ballots are more heavily scrutinized and able to be thrown out. It used to be that if you voted in person, that was the protected vote. Now, your in-person vote is the one that’s less likely to count.”
In the 2018 general election, New York had the highest mail-in ballot rejection rate in the nation. The state threw out nearly 14% of all mailed ballots cast, giving voters no opportunity to fix the defects that poll workers identified.
Many voters risked COVID-19 exposure to show up to the polls in 2020, even though they could cast an absentee ballot, to ensure their votes would count, Berg said.
And in April, an absentee ballot tracking program was introduced. This system lets voters see if absentee ballot requests were received, if the ballot has been mailed and how to fix rejected mail-in ballots.
Access for voters with disabilities
Voters with disabilities can enroll to automatically receive absentee ballots for all New York elections. Those who sometimes go to their polling place anyway — maybe to feel more secure casting their ballot in person — could be surprised by this year’s changes.
“They’re going to be confused when they show up and get a provisional ballot,” said Christina Asbee, director of Disability Rights New York’s P&A for Voting Access program. “People will be confused, and the vote might not count because they have a provisional ballot with potentially no understanding of how that ballot works. This will have real consequences for voters this year.”
Nearly 23% of the adult, non-institutionalized population in New York reports having some kind of disability.
One helpful change: Under a recent settlement, the state’s Board of Elections now allows blind and other disabled voters the ability to fill out an accessible vote-by-mail ballot online, print it and send it to their county board of elections. This helps make voting an independent process, which some voters with visual disabilities say they’ve never experienced before.
Automatic voter registration is on its way
While New York signed automatic voter registration into law in December 2020, it’s not anticipated to be in place until 2023. This will provide the opportunity to register to vote at more state and local agencies, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The legislature also enacted an online voter registration system through the Board of Elections in 2019, which a spokesperson for the Board of Elections says will be in place by May 2023. This new measure will make voter registration fully electronic, eliminating paper applications passed between agencies.
The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act
Similar to the federal Voting Rights Act’s “preclearance” provision that was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, New York’s state Voting Rights Act requires local governments with histories of discrimination to prove that proposed changes won’t harm Black voters, for example, before enacting them. But it protects all voters in a variety of ways, including by providing legal tools to fight discriminatory provisions in court and expanding language access in elections.
The law will provide election materials and assistance for people who are Native American, Asian American, Alaska Natives or of Spanish heritage. Language assistance, however, will not take effect for three years, a Board of Elections spokesperson said.
“As we work to implement the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act — from challenging racial gerrymandering and voter intimidation to expanding language assistance and polling access — we must ensure its protections remain strong,” wrote Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Voting rights restored to parolees
In May 2021, the state restored voting rights for all New York residents who are not in prison. Correctional system officials are required to educate people about the need to re-register upon release in order to have voting rights restored.
Prior to this change, New York did not allow people on parole to vote. But Cuomo had started using his pardon power to restore parolees’ voting rights in 2018.
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