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NY lets voters get absentee ballots due to virus concerns

FILE - In this June 30, 2020, file photo, a box of absentee ballots wait to be counted at the Albany County Board of Elections in Albany, N.Y.  New York will allow voters to request absentee ballots for the general election because of coronavirus under a new state law signed Thursday, Aug. 20. Lawmakers passed the bill last month, and voting rights groups have been calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign the legislation for weeks. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)
FILE - In this June 30, 2020, file photo, a box of absentee ballots wait to be counted at the Albany County Board of Elections in Albany, N.Y. New York will allow voters to request absentee ballots for the general election because of coronavirus under a new state law signed Thursday, Aug. 20. Lawmakers passed the bill last month, and voting rights groups have been calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign the legislation for weeks. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

ALBANY, N.Y. – New York will allow voters to request absentee ballots for the general election because of an outbreak — like coronavirus — under a new state law signed Thursday.

New Yorkers can now vote by absentee in any election through Jan. 1, 2022, over concern about voting in-person during an epidemic or disease outbreak. For weeks, Democrats and voting rights groups had called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign the legislation, which the Democratic-led Legislature passed in late July.

Voters were allowed to vote by absentee ballots in the June primary because of virus concerns. New York typically only allows voters to request absentee ballots if they fall into one of several categories, including absence from one’s county on Election Day.

Voters in New York can start requesting absentee ballots immediately under another bill Cuomo signed.

New York's new legislation comes amid growing concerns about the impact of cost-cutting moves at the United States Postal Service, a potential surge in the pandemic this fall and mailing delays and other issues that plagued the June primary. An unknown number of voters didn’t receive their ballot until Election Day or after, fueling calls by voting rights group for a ballot-tracking system across New York.

Some lawmakers have proposed reducing reliance on the mail by allowing drop boxes outside the usual confines of voting sites and local election offices. But State Board of Elections spokesperson John Conklin told The Associated Press it's “unlikely” New York has the time to buy enough drop boxes to widely expand their use for November.

Election officials are expecting an even bigger flood of mail-in votes in November than for the June primary, after which results were delayed for six weeks.

Election officers worked through the pandemic to process 1.8 million requests for absentee ballots in a primary that saw nearly 40% of votes cast by absentee ballot — a monumental sum in a state whose long-restrictive absentee-voting system involves fewer than 1 in 10 voters in typical elections.

Unlike New York, 34 states allow residents to vote absentee without citing a specific excuse, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New York state lawmakers who want to allow no-excuse voting would have to pass a proposed state constitutional amendment a second time in the next Legislature to send it to voters for ratification.

Some states, including Missouri and Massachusetts, have already expanded absentee voting this year, while similar legislation is pending in Connecticut.

Other voting-related legislation, including a bill to pass an automatic electronic system of voter registration, is still under review, according to Cuomo's office.

As of early Thursday afternoon, Cuomo had not signed a bill to notify voters of issues with their absentee ballots — such as the lack of signature — and allow voters to fix them. Some state election officials calling for additional funding and time to process ballots this November from lawmakers — along with patience from voters — have warned the measure will fuel more delays.

It’s unclear how the state and Postal Service will fix several issues with mail-in voting ahead of the November election.

Earlier this year, Cuomo announced the state would mail applications for absentee ballots with prepaid postage to all registered voters. His office didn’t immediately respond Thursday when asked whether he’ll do so for November as well.

But the Postal Service failed to postmark all ballots sent with the prepaid postage in the June primary, even though it’s their policy to do so.

Over 4,800 ballot envelopes in Brooklyn lacked a postmark while the four other boroughs saw fewer than 100 ballots without postmarks, according to Robert Brehm, the state elections board's co-executive director. He said the state received complaints from upstate counties as well.

“I am sure you agree that is an unacceptably high number,” Brehm said, in an Aug. 10 letter asking the Postal Service how it'll avoid more voter disenfranchisement in November.

Brehm cited a federal judge who found that “discrepancy” in the diverse borough — whose minority communities were hard-hit by the coronavirus — was unconstitutional.

“As you are aware, a lack of a postmark results in disenfranchising voters, and our efforts should focus on preventing such disenfranchisement,” he said.

Another new state law Cuomo signed Thursday would let election officials count a ballot even if it wasn’t postmarked, at long as it arrived by the day after Election Day.

Still, lawmakers haven't addressed the fate of ballots without a postmark that arrived several days after the June primary, and whether the state will accept such ballots in November.

Meanwhile, state and local election commissioners are calling on New York to prevent delays and give poll workers more time and funding to prepare.

The Postal Service asked New York on July 30 to require voters to request a ballot at least 15 days before the Nov. 3 election, up from seven days currently.

Brehm endorsed pushing back the deadline in a recent legislative hearing, but Cuomo and lawmakers haven’t indicated whether they’ll do so.

And Brehm is urging the Postal Service to avoid a repeat of the 2017 November election, when large batches of absentee ballot envelopes in Brooklyn weren’t delivered until late April in 2018.

He said the postal service expected the city to pick up the ballots per a verbal agreement.

The Postal Service didn’t respond to request for comment Wednesday or Thursday.