Two months before the presidential election -- where mail-in ballots will play a larger role thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic-- the city Board of Elections rolled out its first-ever tracking system for absentee ballots once they're filled out and slipped into mailboxes. News of the system comes amid worries that President Donald Trump is attempting to disrupt the November election by sowing mistrust toward the United States Postal Service.
It also comes two months after a widely criticized June primary that resulted in a lawsuit over the process of tracking absentee ballots, where some of these ballots were invalidated because they lacked a postmark as required by law.
The Absentee Ballot Tracking system launched on Friday to track an application and the actual ballot. Being approved for an absentee ballot before usually happens under a narrow set of guidelines. But under state law recently signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, any New Yorker can request an absentee ballot so long as they check off a box in the application citing concerns for contracting the coronavirus at a polling site. The measure formalizes a prior executive order that allowed anyone to receive a ballot.
Once an absentee ballot is requested, the system generates a tracking number. Once the absentee ballot application is sent, and a ballot is filled out and placed in the mail, the system will utilize so-called "Intelligence Mail barcode" technology, allowing a voter to track the status of their ballot. A “valid” ballot will be counted in the tally. If a ballot is considered invalid, election officials will be able to provide directions on “curing” the ballot, offering a voter extra time to fix any issues on the ballot to ensure it’s re-validated. The curing process involves the voter having to go to their borough BOE office and correcting the error, such as a missing date or signature.
"I think it will be an improvement," Sarah Steiner, an election lawyer, told Gothamist, of the new system. "It creates more confidence."
Such assurances weren't in place before when voters hoped and prayed their ballot would be get to the city Board of Elections in time for it to be counted. During the June 23rd primary -- in which the city BOE sent out 775,000 absentee ballots -- the city BOE waited for more than a week before starting to count the ballots. They initially tossed out ballots that lacked a postmark from USPS or were postmarked a few days after the primary, triggering a lawsuit by various candidates.
The legislation to create the ballot-tracking system was passed in 2016 by the New York City Council to ensure transparency in elections. But the city BOE, a quasi-government agency, never adhered to the creation of the system that could have averted confusion during the primary.
At a joint State Legislature hearing last month evaluating the primary, state Board of Elections officials estimated that 5 million absentee ballots will be mailed out across the state for the November election, four times more than the usual amount. At the hearing, election officials said $50 million will be needed to carry out the election.
Legislators have since grown wary of the integrity of the November election after Trump's recent comments attacking mail-in ballots, his baseless arguments that it favors Democrats more than Republicans, and his refusal to fund USPS. They've also pointed to the appointment of Louis DeJoy, a supporter and donor of Trump, as further proof of Trump's attempt at meddling with the election.
Casting a vote via absentee ballot, of course, isn't the only way to vote. For voters comfortable going to a poll site, early voting will begin October 24th and last through November 1st. Absentee ballots can also be dropped at poll sites as well.
New Yorkers can request an absentee ballot application here. The deadline to request a ballot is October 27th.