COVID-19 forced NY to vote by mail. Participation went through the roof.

Jon Campbell
New York State Team

ALBANY – First COVID-19 forced New York to shut down businesses and tell residents to stay home. Then it forced an experiment in democracy.

With infection rates climbing, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state health officials decided in March to rely heavily on voting by mail for June's school budget votes and primary elections, encouraging New York voters to cast their ballot from their home rather than congregating in close proximity at a polling place.

The results so far?

Voter participation appears to be soaring, a not-so-insignificant feat for a state that has long struggled to get people to the polls.

"It did not surprise us because you're making voting more accessible," said Dave Albert, spokesman for the state School Boards Association. "Theoretically, you wouldn't need to leave your house to vote."

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School budget, primary absentees up big

Voting poll at the Fair & Expo Center in Henrietta.

School districts across New York, required for the first time to conduct their budget votes entirely by mail last week, reported receiving three or four or even eight times as many ballots as they had in recent years.

And more than 1.7 million voters requested an absentee ballot for Tuesday's New York primary elections, which includes the Democratic presidential contest that has already been decided for former Vice President Joe Biden.

That's more than 10 times the 157,885 who requested an absentee ballot in 2016, when Republicans and Democrats still had contested presidential races by the time New York's primary rolled around.

School districts have raised concern over the cost of administering mass voting by mail, with the state School Boards Association estimating it cost an average district five times the amount of a normal, in-person election.

There are logistical concerns, too.

Many tight primaries Tuesday likely won't be decided for more than a week as county officials deal with an unprecedented number of absentee ballots, which will continue trickling in through June 30 before local election boards can even start counting.

Election reform advocates, however, said the COVID-forced experiment has proven what they have been saying for years: Granting people the ability to vote by mail leads to more people participate in their democracy.

"Preliminary results indicate that things went well," said Sarah Goff, deputy director of Common Cause/NY.

"Voters were participating in that part of the democratic process, and I think it shows our long-held philosophy of making it easier to vote pays off."

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Schools had to send ballots to each voter

Gov. Andrew Cuomo rode the subway Monday, June 8, 2020, as New York City entered the first phase of a four-phase reopening due to coronavirus.

Under Cuomo's order, school districts were required to send a ballot to each registered voter within their boundaries, along with an envelope to seal the ballot and a separate, postage-paid return envelope.

The governor — who also pushed back the school vote from the traditional May to June — prohibited schools from having people vote in person on their budgets and boards, as they usually would.

All around the state, voters responded.

In Orange County, Wallkill school voters averaged about 700 ballots submitted for the last two local school elections.

Last week, the district counted more than 3,800 votes.

The Middletown city school district's results also spiked from 761 ballots cast last year to more than 4,000 votes counted this year.

In the Rochester area, the West Irondequoit district counted 5,251 ballots — a 147% increase over 2019.

Albert acknowledged the absentee ballot process played a role in boosting turnout for the budget votes, which had plummeted since the state's property-tax cap took effect in 2012 and limited the spending increases most school districts propose.

But he said there were other factors at play, too.

And he lamented the logistical challenges of implementing the vote-by-mail system and the increased costs of administering it, noting a survey of more than 120 districts showed the average price of administering the elections jumped from $5,400 in 2019 to more than $26,000 in 2020.

More than 98% of school districts approved their budgets, according to the School Boards Association.

"Certainly part of it is the convenience and the accessibility of the absentee ballot," Albert said of the turnout boost.

"But I think another part of it is the recognition of the important role that schools play in general, but especially in the last three months of this crisis." 

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Counties mailed automatic application, not ballot

FILE - In this March 12, 2020, file photo Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about the coronavirus in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Tuesday's primary vote followed a different playbook.

By Cuomo's order, each eligible primary voter — which includes more than 5.9 million Democrats eligible to vote in their party's presidential contest — was mailed an application for an absentee ballot.

Of those, nearly 1.75 million people filled out the application and requested a ballot, which they had to postmark by Tuesday in order for it to be counted. 

Overall turnout may not approach 2016's presidential primary, when 2.9 million New York residents cast their ballot in the contested Republican and Democratic primaries, won by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, respectively.

But the incredibly high number of absentee ballot requests combined with those casting their ballot in person suggested a higher-than-expected turnout in a year where the Democratic primary is already decided for Biden and there is no Republican presidential primary in New York.

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New York already moving toward more mail-in voting

Members of the New York state Senate debate budget bills during session in Senate Chamber at the state Capitol Sunday, March, 31, 2019, in Albany, N.Y.

Prior to the pandemic, New York already had taken a first step toward allowing more mail-in votes.

With Democrats taking control of the state Senate last year after Republicans controlled the chamber for most of the prior century, Cuomo and state lawmakers approved a series of voting reforms.

Among them was the first passage of a constitutional amendment that would allow for "no excuse" absentee voting, meaning anyone could request an absentee, mail-in ballot regardless of the reason.

Under the current state constitution, voters have to have a bona fide reason for requesting a ballot, such as being out of the state on Election Day or having an illness or disability.

But changing the constitution is a lengthy process: It requires passage by consecutively elected sessions of the Legislature before it's put to a statewide referendum.

That means the earliest no-excuse absentee voting could come to New York is 2022.

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If approved, New York would join 34 other states that do not require an excuse for absentee voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Five states proactively mail ballots to voters without a request: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

Goff, of Common Cause/NY, said New York needs to move forward with expanding absentee voting first before broadening the system further.

"States like Colorado and Washington, it took them decades to get to the point where they are," she said.

"It's not as simple as dropping every voter ballot in the mail. It is a complicated process that takes years to build up over time."

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Many Republicans oppose it

Vote-by-mail, meanwhile, has many powerful opponents.

Chief among them is President Trump, who has taken to Twitter recently to rail against the system and raise concerns about potential fraud, echoing comments from Attorney General William Barr.

On Monday, Trump raised the prospect that foreign governments could print out and mail in ballots in an attempt to sway the election — an unsubstantiated claim that has not played out in states with broad mail-in voting laws. 

"Because of MAIL-IN BALLOTS, 2020 will be the most RIGGED Election in our nations history - unless this stupidity is ended," Trump tweeted.

"We voted during World War One & World War Two with no problem, but now they are using Covid in order to cheat by using Mail-Ins!

Cuomo, a Democrat who has frequently clashed with Trump, suggested Trump's tweets were a "set up" to blame a potential electoral loss on a "rigged" system.

The governor said expanding mail-in voting is the right thing to do, particularly in the time of COVID-19.

"You can buy something with a credit over the internet, of course you can do mail-in voting," Cuomo said Monday on CNN.

"And of course in the middle of a pandemic. Why do you want people getting on lines? We've seen it. It's absurd. It's counter to public health."

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Includes reporting by Times Herald-Record staff writer Rachel Ettlinger.

Jon Campbell is a New York state government reporter for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.

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