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Coronavirus puts special election for NY-27 in doubt

New York’s presidential primary could be postponed and a special election in the 27th Congressional District canceled altogether as a result of mounting concerns over safety threats posed by the Covid-19 virus. Among those calling for a postponement of the special election was one of the candidates.

"We can’t risk the health of voters and poll workers. ... We must hold this special election, but the right thing to do is to reschedule it,” Democrat Nate McMurray – who is opposing Republican Chris Jacobs to represent the district – said in a statement.

Though no action has taken place, uncertainty intensified Tuesday when the state’s elections commissioners called on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the state Legislature to postpone the Democratic presidential primary from April 28 until June 23, the same day as a scheduled Republican primary for the seat from which Republican Chris Collins resigned on Sept. 30.

The situation presents uncertain options that proponents say must be implemented to avoid crowded polling places.

“Election Boards throughout the state are risking personnel safety and health to prepare for impending elections on April 28,” the New York State Elections Commissioners Association said Tuesday in a bipartisan release. “We are facing critical shortages of inspectors and polling places due to the ongoing public health crisis."

The commissioners said election boards over the next week "will find it almost impossible to meet mission critical deadlines for testing machines and preparing ballots because of staff shortages due to the ongoing stay-at-home order.”

The commissioners’ new position pertains only to the Democratic presidential primary on April 28, and recommends rescheduling it to June 23. That is the day when three Republicans are scheduled to compete in a GOP primary to succeed Collins in Washington.

Assemblywoman Monica Piga Wallace, a Lancaster Democrat and 27th District voter, also weighed in Tuesday by calling for the special congressional contest scheduled for April 28 to be canceled until the regular election in November. Under that proposal, a June GOP primary would proceed.

"At this moment, I think the need to protect the public requires us to postpone scheduled elections until we can better ensure the safety of the community at large," she said.

Wallace also wants the April 28 presidential primary moved to June 23, but she contends the necessity of filling the congressional seat in April is far outweighed by the need to prevent further spread of the virus. Such a course would leave the district with no representation since Collins’ resignation in September. Collins was indicted for insider trading and stripped of his House committee assignments in August 2018.

"I think it would be absolutely terrible to be without representation, but unfortunately, that's the situation," Wallace said. "When you weigh the risk and the benefits, to me, the choice is clear."

In still another development, State Sen. Jen Metzger, D-Sullivan County, has introduced a bill requiring the state Board of Elections to create a vote-by-mail election system during the emergency, allowing New Yorkers to cast June ballots by mail should the public health crisis continue.

Her bill follows similar concerns expressed Monday by Erie County's Democratic and Republican elections commissioners. Republican Ralph M. Mohr and Democrat Jeremy J. Zellner both called for the state to at least significantly expand the availability of absentee ballots to avoid exposure dangers to voters and poll workers alike.

“It is just common sense to prepare now if the current public health emergency extends to the June primary and beyond,” Metzger said Tuesday. “We need to make sure we have a backup plan in place that protects the health and safety of election workers and voters without sacrificing participation in these important elections.”

Metzger’s bill would require the Board of Elections to have a vote-by-mail plan in place by May 1.

A spokesman for Cuomo did not return requests for comment on the situation.

But even New York's elections experts acknowledge the coronavirus has caused almost incomprehensible confusion in the 2020 elections. Dustin M. Czarny, chairman of the elections organization's Democratic caucus and Democratic commissioner in Onondaga County, said various scenarios increase the confusion even more.

If the April 28 special election was somehow reassigned to the next scheduled election date on June 23, for example, voters could be asked to cast ballots for the same candidates in separate special and primary elections for the 27th District.

"This is all unprecedented, and that's why we're calling for delay," Czarny said. "We need to figure this all out."

Time is also looming as a factor, Wallace said, since the state's new election laws call for early voting to start on April 17. And Czarny noted that any executive order issued by Cuomo would have to be issued next week since they remain in effect only for 30 days.

"This is only a very small portion of what he must deal with right now, but it would be nice to know what to do," he said of the governor. "Time is ticking."

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