A leading state Democrat proposed legislation to accelerate the counting of absentee ballots in the state as several of New York’s 62 counties begin to canvass mail-in ballots more than a week after Election Day.
Senate Deputy Leader Mike Gianaris, D-Queens, introduced new legislation Monday to allow New York election workers to start counting absentee ballots on Election Day. A counterpart bill in the Assembly does not exist at this time.
Ballots wait for nearly a week to be canvassed under current state election law, leaving local, state and congressional races hanging in the balance for weeks. Election Day was Nov. 3.
Tuesday was the first day ballots began to be opened in many counties statewide. New Yorkers returned 1,565,365 absentee ballots out of more than 2.4 million requested, according to the state Board of Elections.
“There is no good excuse for election results to continue to be up in the air weeks and months after people have already cast their votes,” Gianaris said in a statement Tuesday. “Our Senate majority will continue to do the work of improving our election processes to ensure everyone has easy access to the ballot and election results are clear and timely.”
The proposal would allow absentee ballots to be canvassed three hours before polls close on Election Day, or 6 p.m. Absentee ballot envelopes would be examined for validity at the time of their arrival at local boards of elections.
The bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan; Diane Savino, D-Staten Island-Brooklyn; and David Carlucci, D-Ossining, was referred to the Senate Rules Committee on Monday.
“We have to address the fact that now, with absentee voting being over 25% of the vote, we are in a new world and have to update how we count mail-in ballots,” Carlucci said. “The fact that we cannot call local races until weeks after Election Day is obscure and confusing to the public. Now we need a political interpreter to tell us who might have won and who has a chance.”
The Greene County Board of Elections will begin to open more than 4,000 combined returned absentee and affidavit ballots Thursday.
The process was halted after Republican candidate Richard Amedure, seeking election to retiring Sen. George Amedore Jr.’s 46th District seat, filed a restraining order petition on Election Day with the state Board of Elections and the Albany, Greene, Montgomery, Schenectady and Ulster boards of elections asking for the emergency preservation of all paper and absentee ballots.
Democratic candidate Michelle Hinchey filed a petition with the same boards Nov. 4 canvassing ballots and certifying election results.
Amedure leads Hinchey by about 8,170 votes, not counting mail-in ballots. Voters in the 46th District returned 25,987 absentee ballots, according to the state Board of Elections.
The petitions were upheld and both campaigns were ordered to receive copies of the fronts and backs of all absentee and affidavit materials by 5 p.m. Monday, with 48 hours for review before counting begins, Greene County Republican Election Commissioner Brent Bogardus said.
“Fundamentally, both campaigns went to court, which in a close race, is sort of standard operating procedure basically to get the court to make sure their rights are protected to participate in the process of opening absentees and affidavits,” Bogardus said. “With this process, the vast majority of absentees and affidavits are going to be opened because they’re fine, and at that point, they will be canvassed into the results.”
The Greene County Board of Elections allows two representatives for each candidate to observe the counting of affidavits and absentees.
“The campaigns have requested court oversight to make sure their rights are protected,” Bogardus said. “We’re able to get more interesting if one campaign or the other is challenging ballots and why, but as we speak, we haven’t started that process.”
If either campaign takes issue with a ballot, it will be set aside for a court review. Candidates challenge ballots for discrepancies in the absentee envelope, registration signatures and other issues, Bogardus said.
Senate Republicans expect Amedure to emerge victorious, but maintained the petition in the close race.
“We expect Rich Amedure’s lead will hold,” Senate Minority Director of Communications Candice Giove said.
Amedure’s campaign did not return multiple requests for comment Friday, Monday or Tuesday.
“It’s unfortunate that our opponent’s legal maneuvers have intentionally delayed the counting of absentee and military ballots during a pandemic,” Hinchey campaign manager Jesse Meyer said in a statement Tuesday. “However, we will fight to make sure every vote is counted and from the over 27,000 returned ballots, we are very encouraged.”
“There are other elections where the math is just not there for the other candidate,” Giove said. “Every legal vote should be counted, and at the end of the day, we’re going to have a winner declared. That’s what this democracy is all about.”
On Election Day, Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, filed a petition similar to Amedure’s against the Columbia, Saratoga, Rensselaer and Washington counties boards of elections and the state Board of Elections requesting all paper and absentee ballots be preserved.
Senate Republicans withdrew the petition Friday before a scheduled virtual 10:30 a.m. court conference took place.
“This petition has been removed,” Giove said. “We remain confident that Daphne Jordan will maintain her massive lead.”
Jordan, the incumbent, leads Democratic candidate Patrick Nelson by more than 20,500 votes, excluding absentee totals.
The state Board of Elections reports 29,031 mail-in ballots returned in the 43rd District.
“If they’re confident that she’s going to maintain her massive lead, then they don’t know how to do math,” Nelson said. “It’s very likely she’s going to win, but spiking the football with four minutes to go in the fourth quarter is generally considered to be poor taste. Even the worst sports in professional athletics have the common courtesy to wait for there to be zeroes on the clock before they start to party.”
Jordan and her campaign referred all questions to the Senate GOP.
“None of these results are certified yet, but we do have very large leads in a lot of these contests,” Giove said. “We’re excited about that.”
Each candidate is authorized to have representatives in the room when mail-in ballots are tallied.
County election officials began opening absentee and affidavit ballots Monday. About 7,900 Columbia County residents returned absentee ballots, which were required to be postmarked by Nov. 3. The county had about 200 affidavit ballots, for a total of more than 8,000 ballots to be processed and scanned by hand.
“We’re just plodding through them,” Columbia County Board of Elections Democratic Commissioner Ken Dow said Tuesday. “It’s not complicated — it just takes time.”
County election officials opened about 3,000 mail-in ballots from Ancram, Copake, Kinderhook, Canaan, Chatham and Gallatin as of Tuesday afternoon, and continued canvassing votes from Hillsdale on Tuesday.
Nelson observed the opening of absentees Monday in Columbia County, where the Democrat took the lead, receiving more than 70% of absentee ballot votes.
“The existence of the court case meant they were aware of the numbers, and as they should be aware now that that 20,000-vote margin is rapidly decreasing,” Nelson said. “It’s just not a question of if it will continue to get closer, the question is by how much. If the current trends hold, this could be as close as 3%.
“It remains to be seen — it’s not impossible,” he added. “Suffice to say, it’s not over. There’s still a lot of Democratic strongholds yet to be counted. Regardless of the result, we will continue to try to deliver results in every way I can, but right now, let’s just keep it counting.”
Counting will resume Thursday because county offices are closed Wednesday in observance of Veterans Day.
The county Board of Elections will likely post updated results online at sites.google.com/a/columbiacountyny.com/elections by the end of the week.
“Probably by the end of the day Thursday,” Dow said. “I’m pretty sure we’ll put something up by the end of this week. I think people want to know where things stand.”
Dow estimated it would take Board of Elections employees about 25 hours of labor time to open the remaining ballots. The county has not received additional petitions or ballot challenges to date.
“It’s pretty uneventful,” Dow said. “They’ve already been reviewed. We’re not having objection fights over them, it’s just a matter of processing.”