Dutchess Official Joins Election Lawsuit

Republicans, Conservatives challenge absentee ballot rule

Erik Haight, the Republican election commissioner for Dutchess County, is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by party officials to overturn a law that requires elections boards to determine the validity of absentee ballots before Election Day.

The lawsuit, filed Sept. 27 in state court in Saratoga County, also seeks to invalidate a law that extended a pandemic-era concession allowing people to cite the fear of COVID-19 as a reason to vote absentee.

Instituted in 2020, during the first year of the pandemic, the change spurred a surge in absentee voting and caused delays in finalizing vote counts.

Democrats cited the delays as the reason they enacted state legislation in December that allows county elections boards to review absentee ballots within four days of their receipt, rather than after the polls close. Elections offices operated under the that rule during the June and August primaries.

The legislation allows election boards to count provisional ballots within four days of elections. It also notes that if a person’s name on the voter registration list used by poll workers on Election Day has a notation indicating they earlier requested an absentee ballot, they can only vote using a provisional ballot, not the machine.

In a response to the lawsuit filed Oct. 5, the state Board of Elections said that more than 165,000 absentee ballots have been sent out for next month’s general election, including to military personnel and other U.S. citizens overseas, with more than 2,000 returned and ready for scanning.

The board asked Judge Dianne Freestone to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that siding with the plaintiffs would disenfranchise “thousands of voters” and potentially delay the election. It accused the plaintiffs of filing the lawsuit knowing it could cause “tremendous disruption to the orderly unfolding of the election process.”

In addition to Haight, the lawsuit is being brought by the chairs of the state Republican and Conservative parties, Republican elected officials and a second Republican elections commissioner, from Erie County.

They claim that the new rules violate the state Constitution, which specifies that residents be allowed to vote absentee when away from their county of residence or because of “illness or physical disability”; conflict with existing laws; and make it harder for elections workers to catch invalid or fraudulent ballots.

“The rules that we had prior to this law were just fine,” Haight told Gothamist. “Nobody that needed an absentee, for all the excuses permitted under the law, was prohibited from having an absentee.”

Haight and the other plaintiffs argue that preventing voters who requested an absentee ballot from casting a vote by machine deprives them of their right to change their minds about candidates.

In addition, the plaintiffs are asking the court to strike down a law enacted in January that extended a pandemic-era concession allowing voters to cite a fear of COVID-19 as a reason for using an absentee ballot.

“Let’s face it, the pandemic is over,” said Haight. “So to continue pandemic-era rules in perpetuity is inherently flawed.”

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