Local election boards will be required to accept more absentee ballots under a new law Gov. Kathy Hochul is expected to sign Friday.

Under the measure, passed in Albany’s latest session, officials will be able to accept ballots with extraneous marks, as long as the voter’s choices are clear. Up to now, any stray mark or writing on a ballot beyond selecting a candidate was grounds to invalidate a person’s vote.

New Yorkers have relied on absentee ballots throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in record-breaking numbers. In 2020, election officials distributed more than 2 million absentee ballots to voters statewide, roughly seven times the number distributed in 2018, according to data from the state Board of Elections. While officials counted 1.7 million returned absentee ballots, more than 77,000 were tossed out for a variety of reasons, including stray marks.

"No ballot should be disqualified because of a single errant pen stroke, and the legislation we're signing today marks a major step forward to ensure New Yorkers' unambiguous votes are counted,” Hochul said in a statement provided to Gothamist ahead of the bill’s signing. The law takes effect immediately, and just before the upcoming June primary.

This latest change builds on a series of reforms to state election law ushered in by Democratic legislative leaders when they took majority control of both chambers in 2019. Since that time, lawmakers have approved early voting, automatic voter registration and increased access to absentee ballots. They’ve also adopted a cure process for absentee and affidavit ballots with certain errors, like a missing date or signature, giving the ballots a greater chance of being counted.

However, stray marks are not covered by the cure process.

“The bar for disqualifying a valid ballot, where the voter's intent is clear, should be extremely high — and a stray scribble or two shouldn't be the reason anyone is disenfranchised,” said State Sen. Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn, chair of the elections committee and lead sponsor of the legislation. Assemblymember Amy Paulin of Westchester County sponsored the bill’s equivalent in the Assembly.

“We should always look for ways to ensure more qualified voters can participate in democracy, and this law will remove another technicality that has been used to eliminate valid votes," Myrie added.

It is the worst kind of petty gamesmanship that gives election lawyers a bad name.
Common Cause New York's Susan Lerner

The new change to the absentee ballot law comes the same week Hochul signed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, a wide-ranging state voting rights bill that aims to prevent voter suppression, dilution and intimidation. It will force election officials in jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to seek approval from the state attorney general’s office or a local court before changing specific election administration policies, like the number or location of poll sites.

Unlike the new absentee ballot law, which will first take effect for next week’s primary, portions of the voting rights act won’t take effect until next year.

Good government groups heralded the change as a logical fix to a longstanding weakness in state election law.

Susan Lerner, head of Common Cause New York, said the existing law promoted anti-democratic practices, particularly among election lawyers seeking to boost their clients by knocking out fair and eligible ballots cast for their opponents.

“The public isn't aware of the kind of frivolous and damaging disputes that arise over these ballots after Election Day,” said Lerner. “It is the worst kind of petty gamesmanship that gives election lawyers a bad name.”