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The Editorial Board: The ins and outs of voting in a high-stress year of pandemic

The Editorial Board: The ins and outs of voting in a high-stress year of pandemic

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Labor Day marks the traditional kickoff to the final leg of the American election season, and this one is like no other in memory, possibly no other in history.

Americans will be voting in the midst of a deadly pandemic and an economic recession deep enough that some are calling it a depression. Unemployment is high, our social fabric is frayed and Americans are split. On top of that, the choice in the presidential election is between two septuagenarians, including a controversial and divisive incumbent and a challenger making his third bid for the White House.

Turnout is expected to be high, but pandemic worries pervade the landscape. So, this Labor Day, we offer a primer on voting in 2020, looking at deadlines and methods for registering to vote and then casting your ballot.

We encourage everyone to make sure their voice is heard this year and, beyond that, to check your friends and relatives to be sure they are ready to vote. This one is going to be hot.


Here are the qualifications to vote in New York, from the State Board of Elections.

You must be:

• A United States citizen.

• At least 18 years old (you may pre-register at 16 or 17 but cannot vote until you are 18).

• A resident of this state and the county, city or village for at least 30 days before the election.

You must not:

• Be in prison or on parole for a felony conviction (unless pardoned or have regained rights of citizenship).

• Be found mentally incompetent by a court.

• Claim the right to vote elsewhere.


Residents must be registered before they can vote. Mail-in registration applications must be postmarked no later than Oct. 9 and received by the Board of Elections by Oct. 14. The board must receive hand-delivered applications by Oct. 9.

Those honorably discharged from the U.S. military or who become naturalized citizens after Oct. 9 may register in person at the Board of Elections until Oct. 24. Changes of address must be received by a county Board of Elections no later than Oct. 14.

Register in person:

Many places offer the opportunity to register in person. They include: the Department of Motor Vehicles; local Boards of Elections; ; Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services; Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired; Department of Health - WIC Program; Department of Labor; Department of Social Services; ; Division of Veterans’ Services; military recruiting offices; Office for the Aging; Office of Mental Health; Office For People With Developmental Disabilities; SUNY campuses; and Workers’ Compensation Boards. For a complete list, see the state Board of Elections website.

Register by mail:

You may obtain an application by:

• Visiting any of the agencies listed above.

• Entering your name directly into the New York State Board of Elections mailing list database.

• Completing and mailing the English-language form.

• Completing and mailing the Spanish-language form.

Request a voter application by phone:

Call, 1-800-FOR-VOTE.


Last year, New York State joined 38 other states in allowing early voting. Proponents have long touted convenience, reduced stress and better options. To its great credit, Erie County has led the state, offering 37 places to vote early, 30 more than the minimum of seven mandated by the state as a function of the county’s population. Unfortunately, Erie County was alone in Western New York in going beyond the minimum requirement.

Worse, in a high-stress year, it appears Erie County will once again be alone. The region’s other counties – Niagara, Genesee, Allegany, Wyoming, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua – should do better. The law allows it and a commitment to democracy means doing more than the minimum.

Jacob Neiheisel is associate professor of political science at the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences. He observed that early voting is not particularly effective in making voting more convenient. “The evidence that we have to date suggests that turnout doesn’t really go up with early voting like it does with other reforms such as election day registration,” he said. That is to say, the option mainly draws those who were going to vote, anyway. Nevertheless, in the midst of a pandemic, that can reduce congestion at polling places. What is more, it doesn’t risk the confusion that plagued voting by mail in the state’s June primary election and could again in November.

Neiheisel added that no one has seen how New York performs with early voting in a presidential election year. New York is below the national average when it comes to the number of days of early voting that are permitted, the professor said, a troubling point in a high-risk, high-interest year. During the Covid-19 pandemic there should be more sites that are open for longer periods. Someone in Albany was asleep at the switch, and at the worst possible time.

The details

Early voting starts Oct. 24, and runs until Nov. 1. It is open to all voters and must be done in person. Find the answers to frequently asked questions here.

Number of voting sites by county:

Allegany - One site. Call (585) 268-9295 OR 9294.

Cattaraugus – Two sites. Call (716) 938-2400.

Chautauqua – Three sites. Call (716) 753-4580.

Erie – 37 sites. Call (716) 858-8891.

Genesee – Call (585) 589-3274.

Niagara – two sites. Call (716) 438-4040 or (716) 438-4041.

Orleans - One site. Call (585) 589-3274.

Wyoming – One site. Call (585) 786-8931.


Absentee voting is expected to be especially popular this election but, as New York’s bungling of the June primary election shows, not without risk. A New York Times report says experts expect 80 million mail ballots to be cast this fall, more than double the number in 2016. Without careful planning – especially in this state – that could produce chaos. Nevertheless, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, voting by mail will be a big factor on Nov. 3. Here are the details


Any of the following apply:

• Unable to appear at the polls due to illness or disability (including fear of contracting or spreading a communicable disease such as Covid-19).

•Absent from your county on Election Day.

• Unable to appear because you are the primary care giver of one or more individuals who are ill or physically disabled.

• A resident or patient of a Veterans Health Administration Hospital.

• Detained in jail awaiting grand jury action or confined in prison after conviction for an offense other than a felony.

How to apply

• Go to the state’s absentee ballot application portal.

• Send an email request to your local county board of elections.

• Send a fax request to your local county board of elections.

• Go to your local county board of elections.

•Mail a paper application to your local county board of elections,

Voters can also download a PDF file in English or Spanish.

Upon completion, applications must be mailed to voter's county board no later than the seventh day before the election, or delivered in person no later than the day before the election. See deadline details below.

If sending a letter to your county board of elections. The letter must contain the name and date of birth of the voter; the address where you are registered, an address where the ballot is to be sent and the reason for the request.

Other details:

• If applying by letter, an application form will be mailed with your ballot. The application form must be completed and returned with your ballot.

• If you cannot pick up your ballot, or will not be able to receive it through the mail, you may designate someone to pick it up for you.

• If you are permanently ill or disabled, you have the right to receive an absentee ballot for each subsequent election without further application. Simply file an application with your county board of elections indicating permanent illness or physical disability.

If you are visually impaired or otherwise disabled, such that your disability requires you to use an accessible absentee ballot application, you have two accessible options to request a ballot. You may use the Accessible Electronic Ballot Application Portal or the accessible ballot application with instructions.


• Oct. 27: Last day to apply online, by email, fax or to postmark an application or letter of application. The U.S. Post Office does not guarantee timely delivery of ballots applied for less than 15 days before an election.

• Nov. 2: Last day to apply in-person for absentee ballot.

• Nov. 3: Last day to postmark ballot. Must be received by the local board of elections no later than Nov. 10. Military ballots must be received no later than Nov. 16.

• Nov. 3: Last day to deliver ballot in-person to the local board of elections or to any poll site.

Refer to the New York State Board of Elections website to fill out and download a voter registration form.


Even with absentee and early voting, turnout on Nov. 3 may be high, so keep that in mind, especially if you have concerns about Covid-19.

Polling places in New York will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Election Day. Answers to frequently asked questions are available here.

To find your polling place, go to your county Board of Elections website. To find it, start here.

Because of the risks of Covid-19, the State Board of Elections recommends washing your hands, wearing a mask when distancing isn’t possible and other strategies. A complete list of recommendations is available here.


Fifty-five percent of the state poll workers are 60 years old or older, in the heart of the Covid-19 vulnerability cohort. The state is having trouble recruiting the full complement of poll workers for the general election, which is about 85,000 people. Every County Boards of Elections is looking for poll worker candidates. Learn more here.

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