Since the start of the pandemic through the end of last year, nearly 330,000 New York City voters who applied for absentee ballots chose to vote in person instead. That’s out of more than 2 million absentee ballot applications the New York City Board of Elections received in the same period, according to data Gothamist obtained from the agency.

The option to change one’s mind and vote in person — casting a ballot on a machine — during early voting or on Election Day was permitted under state law. That was, until this year, when the law changed.

Now any voter who applies for an absentee ballot but then decides to vote in person will be handed an affidavit ballot; they will not be permitted to vote on a machine. The policy change sets up a potentially confusing situation for thousands of voters accustomed to applying for an absentee ballot — which became critical during the COVID-19 era — as an insurance policy in case they could not make it safely to the polls.

With a deadline of June 13th for absentee ballot applications, voters must decide if that’s really how they want to vote and be prepared for the extra steps if they apply and change their mind. To complete an affidavit ballot, a voter must fill out an envelope that’s essentially a voter registration form and then the ballot goes inside the envelope, to be run through a machine only after the city BOE confirms the person is an eligible voter.

“If you think you're going to be soliciting an absentee ballot from the board, think twice,” said Vincent Ignizio, the deputy director of the city BOE. He said the board has tried to educate voters through a marketing campaign with posters, direct mail and tweets.

Ignizio also acknowledged that he is prepared for the BOE to be hit with the blowback when an unsuspecting voter who applied for an absentee ballot shows up at the polls.

“It’s going to be, ‘Oh my God. They are stopping Mr. McGillicutty from voting,’’’ Ignizio said. He is already expecting “conspiracy theories” about how the BOE is preventing people from voting because they show up to a poll site after applying for an absentee ballot — and are given an affidavit ballot. He emphasized that the city BOE is just implementing a law changed by the state Legislature.

That legal change stems from the drawn out certification process that followed the 2020 election. Most pointedly, a close election in central New York’s 22nd district, between Democratic incumbent Anthony Brindisi and Republican Claudia Tenney, was the final congressional contest decided in the nation. A court ruled Tenney the winner three months after the election. The influx and mishandling of absentee ballots in the race — which was riddled with administrative errors — contributed significantly to the delayed results.

“We're very lucky we're not a swing state in the presidential election, or else this would be a national scandal,” state Sen. Michael Gianaris told Gothamist in January 2021 when he introduced legislation to speed up the absentee ballot counting process. The law was signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul late last year.

Instead of waiting until after an election, local BOEs can now begin processing absentee ballots when they are received, to determine if a ballot is valid, invalid or curable — like a missing signature on the affirmation envelope that a voter can correct after being contacted by the BOE.

Then the BOE can count the absentee votes received starting at 8 p.m. on Election Night, so that the first round of unofficial results includes any valid absentee ballots received at that point.

I think trust in our democratic institutions is kind of at an all time low
Seth Friedman, 30, who lives in Fort Greene

While the law may help election administration in the long-term, the policy change came as a surprise to several voters. Gothamist asked our followers on Twitter to share their reasons for voting in person after applying for an absentee ballot.

Howard Schoenfeld, 54, a voter from Kew Garden Hills, who said he never misses an election, cast an absentee ballot in November 2020 to avoid a trip to a crowded poll site, trying to steer clear of the pandemic crowds. In February 2021, when there was a special election in his City Council district, he again requested an absentee ballot, but changed his mind and decided to vote in person.

“I didn’t trust the mail anymore,” said Schoenfeld.

For 30-year-old Jesse Lang, a data analyst for Columbia Medical Center who lives in upper Manhattan, she applied for an absentee ballot for the November 2020 general election that never arrived. She said she learned from posts on Twitter and Instagram that she could still go and vote in person.

“It never seemed like a question in my mind that that was an option,” said Lang, who was both surprised and unsettled to learn about the new law would require her to complete an affidavit ballot if she showed up to vote in person in the upcoming elections, after applying for an absentee ballot, even if that ballot never arrived.

“I've really only heard of affidavit ballots being used when there are questions about somebody's voter registration, or like they show up at the wrong polling place,” said Lang.

Seth Friedman, 30, lives in Fort Greene where he has been voting since 2020. A software engineer, he moved to the city three years ago from Seattle, where all voting is by mail. He was among the more than 100,000 voters who received a misprinted absentee ballot ahead of the 2020 general election. Even though the city BOE sent him a corrected version, he felt better about going to his early voting site and putting a regular ballot into the machine himself.

Ahead of the upcoming primaries, Friedman said he actually saw the tweet from the city BOE about the change in the absentee ballot law, but he was still concerned it was going to confuse other voters and further erode their confidence.

“I think trust in our democratic institutions is kind of at an all time low,” he said.

Those types of concerns are what Ignizio, the city BOE’s deputy executive director and his staff, including thousands of temporary poll workers, are preparing to contend with in the upcoming primary. He noted the city BOE has already run five special elections this year, and will administer eight elections in total before year’s end. He said the city runs, “free and fair elections every year.”

But he reiterated his advice for those considering an absentee ballot.

“Just think twice,” said Ignizio. "If you fill out an absentee ballot application, you can not vote at the machines.”