The foundation of a healthy democracy is fair, accessible voting. This concept is what we often call the “right to vote,” which was historically denied to many groups in the United States: women, non-whites, those who do not own property, and more. It was only in the 1960s, following numerous constitutional amendments, Supreme Court rulings, and federal laws to prevent voter disenfranchisement, that we arrived at the “one (person), one vote” electoral system (which remains far from perfect).
But the coronavirus outbreak, requiring social distancing, threatens easy access to voting. For example, Wisconsin recently failed to put in place emergency measures for their primary election, requiring citizens to stand in long lines to vote, at risk to their personal health. Of course, this is unacceptable; asking people to risk coronavirus infection to vote is a fundamental failure of government.
New York must take an approach that both protects health and prevents voter disenfranchisement. It is encouraging to see that Governor Cuomo has allowed for absentee ballot voting in the upcoming June 23rd primary, this is a step in the right direction. He also announced that all registered voters will receive an absentee ballot application in the mail, with return postage included. However, we need to stop short of requiring only voting by mail for the upcoming primary, while still ensuring the safety of our citizens.
With little time to prepare, voting only by mail would eliminate accessible options for many New Yorkers, especially the disabled, those who need ballots in large print or braille, or those who need language assistance. I propose that the early voting period be expanded, by up to three weeks before the election date, to allow for safer voting at the polls and maintain accessibility.
In order to implement a full vote-by-mail system, New York State will need more time. First of all, there are reasons to believe, based on problems during the 2019 elections that voter enrollment lists are not totally accurate or updated, including here in the 125th District. If we are relying on those lists to send each voter a ballot, they must be improved. An oversight or error that leads to a voter failing to receive a ballot would be a total disenfranchisement.
We can get to a vote-by-mail system in New York State through adequate planning, funding, and careful assessment of our voting list over time, but not within the next two months. In fact, it will require a constitutional amendment to enact a vote by mail law. The state legislature must pass the amendment language next year, to place it on the ballot for voter approval in November 2021. New Yorkers will be greatly benefitted in allowing voting by mail, but we must do it right. The disabled, blind, and foreign-language speakers cannot be left out of our elections reforms. The law of the land is “one (person), one vote,” after all.