Election Officials Prepare for Deluge of Votes by Mail

Dutchess election workers process absentee ballots

Dutchess election workers process absentee ballots received before the June 23 primary. (Photo courtesy of Dutchess BOE)

Hire additional workers, stock up on letter openers

The Dutchess County Board of Elections’ phones were “ringing off the hook” even before Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that will essentially allow every voter to use a mail-in absentee ballot for the Nov. 3 general election. 

How to apply? Where to apply? 

“People are very concerned about the virus,” said Erik Haight, the board’s Republican commissioner. (Each county board has one full-time commissioner from each of the two major parties.)

State lawmakers responded to that anxiety by passing election reforms, enacted by Cuomo on Aug. 20, that will allow voters to receive an absentee ballot if they fear catching COVID-19 while voting in-person. 

Previously, a voter could only vote absentee if he or she would be out of the county on Election Day; was incarcerated for anything other than a felony charge; was ill or disabled or caring for someone who was ill or disabled; or was a resident or patient of a Veterans Affairs hospital. 

Cuomo also enacted a law allowing voters to request absentee ballots immediately, rather than only within 30 days of the election, and legislation allowing absentee ballots postmarked on or before the day of the election to be counted if received by Nov. 10.

Elections boards will also be able to count ballots received without a postmark but time-stamped on Nov. 4, the day after the election. 

“What I have been stressing to everybody is, don’t wait,” said Catherine Croft, the Democratic commissioner for Putnam County.

The same concession for COVID-19 fears was made before the June 23 primary, and elections officials say they are expecting a similar result: an unprecedented flood of mailed-in ballots that will need to be opened by hand and counted. 

In anticipation, Dutchess County’s Board of Elections is more than doubling its full-time staff, adding 22 temporary workers to its 20-person office, said Haight. The county is expecting that 60 percent of voters may vote absentee, he said. 

Dutchess typically handles between 1,000 and 2,000 absentee ballots, but received 20,000 for the primary, said Haight. The county needed more than a week to count them all.

Haight said he expects three times as many absentee ballots than usual for the general election. In addition to hiring more workers, the county is ordering letter openers and file cabinets with locks to secure ballots, he said. The board posted a YouTube video on Aug. 21 called “How to Complete and Mail Back an Absentee Ballot” (posted below).

How to Vote Absentee

1. An application to receive an absentee ballot may be downloaded at elections.dutchessny.gov or putnamboe.com, or requested by phone by calling the Dutchess board at 845-486-2473 or the Putnam board at 845-808-1300. If you have concerns about voting in person because of the coronavirus, indicate that you have a temporary illness, which now includes “being unable to appear due to risk of contracting or spreading a communicable disease like COVID-19.” [Update: The State of New York has created an online site that allows registered voters to request absentee ballots electronically.]

[Update: 1a. You must apply online, postmark, email or fax a completed application or letter request for the General Election Absentee ballot no later than 7 days (Oct. 27) before the election. You may apply in-person up to the day before the election (Nov. 2). You may file an application at any time before the deadlines, but ballots will be mailed out beginning on or about Sept. 18. (Be aware that the U.S. Postal Service has said it cannot guarantee timely delivery of ballots applied for less than 15 days before the election.]

2. Applications can be returned by mail or dropped off at the Board of Elections offices in Poughkeepsie (for Dutchess) or Carmel (for Putnam). Putnam accepts emailed or faxed applications but Dutchess does not. 

3. Applications must be received by Oct. 27. After that date, they can be filled out in-person, up to Nov. 2 (the day before the election), at the Board of Elections. 

4. Absentee ballots will be mailed beginning Sept. 18. Completed ballots can be returned by mail or dropped off in-person. 

In addition, both counties also will offer early, in-person voting from Oct. 24 to Nov. 1. Dutchess will have four sites, including at Fishkill Town Hall (807 Route 52) and Putnam will have one, at the Board of Elections (25 Old Route 6 in Carmel).

Putnam County’s Board of Elections also will add part-time employees, said Croft. “If we need to add other people, we’ll do what we need to do,” she said. 

On June 18, Croft told the county Legislature that, as of that day, the elections board had mailed out 5,689 absentee ballots for the June primary, compared to 1,000 applications received for the 2016 primary. 

At the time, Croft agreed with Legislator Neal Sullivan (R-Carmel/Mahopac) when he said it sounded like the primary would be a good “test run” for the general election.

Croft said last week that if she had to “pick a number out of the air,” 30,000 absentee ballots could be used for November in a county that has about 68,000 registered voters. 

The Boards of Election face other challenges. The U.S. Postal Service, in a letter dated July 30, warned New York and 45 other states that they should expect delays in mail delivery. “Certain deadlines for requesting and casting mail-in ballots may be incongruous with the Postal Service’s delivery standards,” it said, creating a risk that “ballots requested near the deadline under state law will not be returned by mail in time to be counted under your laws.”

In addition to requesting and returning ballots as early as possible, voters have the option of dropping their ballots at the election boards in Poughkeepsie or Carmel or using expedited services such as FedEx. “There are lots of different solutions bypassing the post office,” said Croft.


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