New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

Gotham Gazette Next Steps to Ensure Voter Access Amid Coronavirus by Ben Kallos Jarret Berg

Next Steps to Ensure Voter Access Amid Coronavirus


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Major questions about voting during coronavirus hang in the balance (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

As the American people hunker down under a patchwork of evolving emergency orders and health directives, our communities are grappling with extraordinary circumstances disrupting and reorienting our lives and the economy. To flatten the curve of community spread during the increasingly deadly COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Cuomo has placed New York on PAUSE; Health officials have issued stay-at-home and social distancing directives; schools, playgrounds, and non-essential facilities are closed. Further restrictions may be imposed. The duration uncertain.

But when it comes to the fate of civil rights during states of emergency, historically the paradigm is less uncertain—there is an irresistible tendency across the globe for authorities to suspend the normal order in the name of imminent, amorphous threats of unknown duration, leading to the incremental curtailment of freedoms that we take for granted (like unfettered travel, transportation, assembly, and enterprise to name a few). The new normal makes prioritization of due process seem quaint, but it is even more critical when the exigencies of the moment impose security measures that inadvertently raise old voter-access hurdles to new, perhaps insurmountable heights.

In this case we can dispense with skepticism over the emergency itself. The pandemic is most certainly real. But already, COVID-19 has scrambled our democratic process. The Democratic National Committee has postponed its convention as 15 states are postponing 2020 primaries and some are adjusting voting policies so residents aren’t forced to choose between safety and casting a ballot. That’s the goal.  

Now that Governor Cuomo has postponed New York’s April presidential primary and several special elections until June, and gone even further to implement universal absentee ballot access by executive order due to the coronavirus concerns, there is a timely opportunity to rebalance and calibrate reasonable access to civil rights for the moment we are in—a perpetual state of emergency during pivotal 2020 elections. To do so, policymakers in Albany and administrators at the State Board of Elections and our 58 county boards are grappling with at least three significant voter access questions.

First, what changes will need to be made to the traditional election day footprint, from polling place siting and layouts to staffing, to comply with public health directives that will continue to evolve? Second, is there a feasible, fair, and secure way to expand and scale New York’s traditionally limited vote-by-mail program as an alternative to voting in person? And third, what role should New York’s new nine-day early voting period play in calibrating this balance between public safety and voter access?

As counties prepare for consolidated June primaries and the 2020 general election, they do so amid much uncertainty about the trajectory and time-horizon of the COVID-19 pandemic. Will this all be a distant memory by late June? Will the pandemic be with us in November, depressing turnout and spreading even further, as occurred in the 1918 midterms?

Without the benefit of hindsight, policy-makers must plan for a circumstance where it may be impossible to staff or unwise to deploy the traditional sprawling election day footprint, with voters assigned to one of thousands of polling places across the state, many of which are sited in facilities deemed too dangerous or vulnerable to be open to the public today, and based on siting schematics and occupancy assumptions unworkable under the public health directives currently in place.

While we are eager to embrace modern, tech-based approaches to our antiquated voting laws that would obviate much of this conversation, mobile voting is in its infancy and comes with documented and unresolved security pitfalls while perpetuating the digital divide in our communities. Moreover, without any infrastructure in place, it could be folly to roll out an entirely new and untested system now. So what tools are actually available during the present emergency?

Read the full op-ed on Gotham Gazette:…


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