Deal ensures fewer absentee ballots will get tossed in New York

ALBANY — A settlement was reached Thursday between the state and a voting rights group that includes policy changes that will lead to less absentee ballots being rejected this November.

New York has previously had the highest rate of absentee ballot rejections of any state, with 34,000 — or 14 percent — invalidated in 2018, and 84,000 thrown out in June’s primary in New York City, when mail-in ballot use soared during the coronavirus pandemic. If that percentage held this year with the expansion of absentee balloting due to COVID-19 — and an expectation that millions of voters may cast ballots by mail for the first time — it could have resulted in hundreds of thousands of canceled votes due to the antiquated provisions that have invalidated ballots for technicalities such as an errant pen mark.

The lawsuit that led to the settlement was brought by the Campaign Legal Center on behalf of the League of Women Voters and a woman named Carmelina Palmer. Palmer has a health condition that causes her hands to shake, and she said the condition made it likely that her ballot would be thrown out because the signatures may not match through no fault of her own.

“This is a huge win for New York voters,” Laura Ladd Bierman, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New York state, wrote in a statement. “Voters now have the opportunity to correct unintended mistakes made when completing and returning their absentee ballots. With new laws passed by the Legislature, signed by the Governor, and now this settlement, a process has been established to ensure that voters’ ballot will not be rejected without their knowledge and ability to fix the error.”

The settlement between those groups and the state Board of Elections and attorney general’s office expands the “cure” process, which requires the state to contact voters if they have turned in a mail ballot with some kind of mistake on it, allowing the voter to correct the error. The settlement will require the state beginning this fall to provide a list of minor errors, such as voters writing with pencil or accidental stray marks, that will no longer automatically invalidate the ballot.

“The settlement of this lawsuit combined with legislative action will give voters clarity and confidence heading into the fall,” Danielle Lang, a co-director at the Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement.

“This is the result of a collaborative process with the state where elections officials recognized the staggering problem of ballot rejections and came to the table to identify solutions,” she added. “We all agree that eligible voters should not lose their constitutional rights over technical issues.”

County boards of election will contact voters who turn in absentee ballots with errors or issues that could invalidate them, and voters this fall will be given up to a week to fix their ballots, depending on the date they mailed it.

Anyone voting through the mail will be notified by phone, email or mail that there may be an issue with their ballot. They will be able to correct the ballot after providing their name, birth date and voter registration number.

The settlement is part of a series of policy changes — through new laws and by executive orders from the Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — that were intended to strengthen voter protections and make it easier for people to cast ballots during the pandemic. Mail-in voting has also been expanded, as has early voting, with voters allowed to drop their ballots at polling locations or their county’s boards of elections. Election boards are required to promptly get in touch with any voters with issues on their absentee ballots.


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