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AG James calls for in-person voting suspension

State Attorney General Letitia James has called for the suspension of in-person voting until further notice.

She has also proposed sending every eligible voter an absentee ballot for the April 28 presidential primary and five special elections, plus village elections postponed to that date, including Saranac Lake’s.

“Voters shouldn’t have to choose between their health and the right to cast a ballot,” James said in a statement Sunday.

“If we act now, we have more than a month before the presidential primary and numerous special elections across our state to take action and ensure every eligible New York voter receives an absentee ballot.

“Let’s make it easier for every voter to cast their vote without spreading the coronavirus and jeopardizing public health. Democracy should not be suspended if there is a safe alternative.”

Currently, New Yorkers who wish to vote absentee must fill out a “New York State Absentee Ballot Application.”

Six reasons

On that application, they must indicate that they cannot vote in person on the day of an election for one of six reasons, which include absence from their county or a temporary or permanent illness or physical disability.

According to a press release from the AG’s office, automatically sending out absentee ballots would not require the state to alter the application in order to add a “public health emergency” option.

Additionally, it would avoid the possibility of leaving polls open for voters to vote in person, potentially furthering the spread of COVID-19.

Executive Order 202 — which was signed March 7 and declared a “state of emergency” that will be in effect until Sept. 7 — allows for suspensions of statutes and regulations, such as Election Law, for 30 days.

That is why James is calling for a new executive order to be signed March 29 — thus extending through the scheduled April 28 primary — that would suspend the election laws that dictate New Yorkers have to apply for an absentee ballot for one of the six approved reasons.

“The exponential rise and spread of coronavirus diagnoses is so grave that allowing normal voting practices to remain in place for the upcoming election would constitute a threat of public illness, sufficient to justify absentee voting, per the State of Emergency declaration,” the release said.

Candidates speak

Though their elections would not be affected by this move, candidates for state and congressional seats gave their thoughts on James’s proposal and what its long-term impacts could be.

Clinton County Treasurer Kimberly Davis, a Democrat running for the 45th State Senate District seat, said she was in favor of the measure.

“We must do everything we can to stop the spread of this virus while ensuring everyone access to their right to vote,” she said.

“We have time to see how this very fluid pandemic situation evolves and can make any appropriate and needed adjustments at a later time,” said Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, who is running against Davis and could face a Republican primary in June.

Assemblyman D. Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, who is running for reelection, said he would continue to look into this and that he had relayed concerns to the State Board of Elections regarding poll workers trying to abide by social distancing protocols during the upcoming primary and village elections, the latter of which was postponed to April 28.

“As far as the legality, there would likely have to be laws passed to institute this proposal, as it modifies portions of our constitution, and I will evaluate this to ensure residents have the ability to vote and keep public health and safety at the forefront.”

Flexibility

Asked about the measure in a teleconference with media Monday, North Country Congresswoman Elise Stefanik noted that a lot of seniors vote absentee anyway in the general election.

“I’m not going to get in the way or say I’m absolutely opposed to this or that.

“I think there’s got to be some flexibility given for voters to make sure that, you know, we can continue the important electoral process in this country.”

Stefanik’s challenger, Democrat Tedra Cobb of Canton, said the health and safety of New Yorkers must remain the top priority of elected officials at every level.

“Participation in the democratic process shouldn’t come at the expense of our health. I am encouraged to see elected officials setting aside politics and working together toward solutions that put people first.

“Beyond this epidemic we should be doing everything possible to increase voting access for New Yorkers.”

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