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From the Desk of Assemblyman Charles Lavine: August 13, 2009

New Legislation Streamlines Absentee Voting Process; Encourages Voter Participation

New York State Assemblyman Charles D. Lavine (D-Glen Cove) has announced Assembly passage of a package of bills he supported that will make casting absentee ballots easier for New Yorkers who are living away from their voting districts, whether for work, school or because they are active members of the U.S. military.

“The strength of a democracy is determined by the level of participation by its citizens, and voting is the most important right that citizens in a democracy possess,” Lavine said. “It’s our responsibility to ensure that all citizens are afforded the means to vote, including by absentee ballot. This election reform package will go a long way toward ensuring all New Yorkers have a chance to cast their ballots – and have their votes counted – on election days.”

The package includes several pieces of legislation that address New York’s absentee voting difficulties that have resulted in voter falloff by many who wish to vote in elections but have not been able to either get to their polling place on primary and election days or did not have their absentee paper ballot counted because of technical problems stemming from current voting procedures.

Among military personnel who reported not voting in 2004, 30 percent said they were not able to vote because their ballots never arrived or arrived too late. A recent Pew Center on the States report concluded that 16 states, including New York, do not provide enough time for military and overseas voters to complete the absentee ballot process and suggested changes to the election law.

New York initiated attempts to address such problems in 2005 by enacting a temporary measure that allows military voters to sign their ballot envelopes before a witness, rather than obtain a postmark, and extended the timeframe for receipt of ballots by the board of elections up to seven days after a primary election or 13 days after a general or special election. The new legislation (A.8376) is an attempt to make this measure permanent and to extend it to non-military New Yorkers living overseas. It also allows for those applying for an absentee ballot to do so by fax or email pursuant to the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.

“Allowing New Yorkers living overseas the ability to apply for absentee ballots by fax or email reflects advances in technology and just plain makes sense,” Lavine said. “And permanently extending the time to receive absentee ballots from overseas will better ensure that no American living overseas will be disenfranchised in New York because of the distance and time it takes to send mail from the far corners of the world.”

Another bill in the package will streamline the absentee ballot application process by nixing the requirement for the inclusion of certain personal information (A.5276-A). The current requirement opens the door to challenging ballots on minor technicalities.

“The current ballot application requires voters to supply information that goes far beyond questions regarding absence, illness or physical disability – the accepted reasons for requesting an absentee ballot in New York State,” said Lavine. “In addition to burdening the voter with the needlessly complex task of filling out a too-long questionnaire, requiring such personal detail could jeopardize voter safety and privacy.”

The package also includes a measure that simplifies the affidavit ballot voting process (A.4015-A). Affidavit ballots are cast by those who present themselves at a polling place on election day to vote but whose names are not found in the poll books or, in the case of a primary, are not listed as being enrolled in the party in which they claim to be. Affidavit voters sign a sworn statement that they believe they are a duly registered voter qualified to vote in that election district, and they cast their vote by affidavit ballot.

Current election law requires that affidavit voters whose ballots were not counted because they were not registered or enrolled be sent a notice informing them that their ballot had been rejected and the reason for rejection. Where appropriate, the board of elections mails the voter an application for registration or change of enrollment. The new bill establishes a dual affidavit ballot/registration and enrollment form, thereby making it easier for the board of elections to register the voter or change the voter’s party enrollment based on the information contained in the affidavit ballot form.

“This package of bills is all about getting as many people’s votes counted as possible and making as many voices heard as possible,” Lavine said. “By streamlining, simplifying and making the best of the technology we have available to us today, we can be sure more New Yorkers exercise their right to vote and our democracy functions as it should.”