The chair of New York State Senate’s Elections Committee is demanding state Board of Elections officials turn over any evidence of alleged irregularities after two Republican commissioners made a series of comments criticizing new laws related to absentee ballots signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul.
The commissioners issued a lengthy statement earlier this month criticizing Hochul for signing one law that would allow people to continue applying for absentee ballots online and another that allows absentee ballots to be processed ahead of an election.
“While these changes are being sold to the public as enhancing voting in New York, the real effect will be a less reliable voting process more suspect in the eyes of the voters,” the commissioners wrote in a statement sent out widely on January 10th. They went on to suggest that the expanded use of absentee ballots has already led to an increase in election interference, citing two ongoing investigations “in various parts of New York."
State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Democrat from Brooklyn, sent a letter to state BOE commissioners Peter Kosinski and Anthony Casale this week asking they provide any evidence of “specific incidents of vote manipulation using absentee ballots in New York.” He is also seeking any referrals their office had made to appropriate investigators from the state attorney general’s office and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Myrie’s request zeroed in on the language being used by BOE officials in their statement, which seemed to echo the unfounded claims of widespread election fraud being made by Republicans across the country.
“It took me aback,” Myrie said. “I wanted to find out whether or not this was based on actual evidence […] or whether this was the talking points being used by those opponents of democracy across the country, and up until fairly recently, emanating from the White House,” he added, in reference to former President Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud.
Myrie wrote his letter after reading another portion of the statement from the commissioners published in an article by the Associated Press about election reforms signed by Hochul. One measure allows people to continue applying for absentee ballots using the health risk posed by COVID-19.
The article also references another measure allowing New Yorkers to apply for absentee ballots online, making permanent the rule put in place during the pandemic, and another allowing local election officials to process absentee ballots on a rolling basis to expedite the post-election canvass process. New York state held the title of certifying the last disputed congressional election in the nation last year, due to a court battle over how election officials handled ballots there.
The commissioners warned these new laws would further erode trust in the state’s elections.
“These actions are a direct threat to the integrity of the election process, designed to make it easier to manipulate the votes of people voting by absentee ballot,” they wrote in their statement. They also pointed to the failure of two election-related ballot measures in November — a defeat spurred by a multi-million dollar ad campaign funded by the state’s Republican and Conservative parties.
Kosinski, the state BOE’s Republican co-chair, offered a full-throated defense of their statement, further critiquing the new laws themselves.
Specifically, he cited security concerns with the law allowing for an online absentee ballot application process since it does not contain a signature requirement.
“We just think that creates opportunities for mischief, for people to make applications on behalf of other people,” Kosinki said.
Myrie noted that if commissioners have any substantial evidence of that, his office would be eager to review it — otherwise, the senator said, they “should stick to the facts.”
Kosinski also criticized the law that would frontload the processing of absentee ballots ahead of Election Day, arguing that it would reduce “transparency” since it shifts the time any observer would need to be present when ballots are being opened to before an election.
The GOP commissioner also said the law removed the role of the courts as being the arbiter of election disputes, a description that Senate majority spokesperson Mike Murphy called a “total mischaracterization.”
“Candidates can always go to court,” Murphy said.
While Kosinski insisted his concerns were nonpartisan, the statement criticizing the new absentee ballot laws was issued only by the two Republican commissioners. State law mandates a bipartisan system for election administration.
Douglas Kellner, the state BOE Democratic co-chair, called the comments from his Republican counterparts “disappointing,” since up until now they have avoided using the same “anti-voter” rhetoric as other members of their party.
“These comments suggest that Republican commissioners are going to be more aggressive following anti-voter policies,” Kellner said.
Advocates for voters also raised an alarm that these Republican election officials are spreading disinformation that can damage democracy. There is an ongoing investigation into ballot interference by a Republican operative in Rensselaer County.
“It’s the Republican Party that is abusing the laws,” said Susan Lerner, head of Common Cause New York. “The people who are speaking out ought to look at their own."
Following the initial publication of this story, the Republican commissioners responded to Senator Myrie’s request, reiterating their concerns about the changes to the state election law related to absentee ballots.
“The removal of the guardrails in New York’s absentee ballot delivery and counting process is the basis of these concerns,” the commissioners stated in their response.
They raised concerns about the removal of the signature requirement to apply for an absentee ballot using the online portal and included a press account from the most recent general election where more than 700 voters applied for absentee ballots in Orange County to be delivered to a single address. The report cites an investigation by the Orange County district attorney’s office.
A call from WNYC/Gothamist about the status of that investigation was not immediately returned.
The GOP commissioners also said the new legislation to speed up the absentee ballot-counting process, “unnecessarily removes important public and judicial review.” Supporters of the reform disagree and said the courts still have a role to play.
As evidence of their concerns, the Commissioners also included a press release from the State Police for a 61-year old man from Port Henry, NY arrested for forging and submitting two absentee ballot applications along with a press report from the Albany Times Union about an ongoing investigation in Rensselaer County.
This story has been updated to include response from Republican commissioners which was provided after its initial publication.