All of Suffolk County’s 338 polling places will be open on Nov. 3, Democratic Suffolk County Elections Commissioner Anita Katz told members of the county’s Ways & Means Committee at its Sept. 3 meeting.
Also, as of this week, New York voters can now apply for an absentee ballot online, instead of through the mail. Ms. Katz said the portal “is going to revolutionize absentee voting,” and added that the County Board of Elections received about 9,300 applications through the portal in the first three days it was online.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued another executive order in late August allowing absentee voters to again check off the “temporary illness” excuse as their reason for wanting to vote absentee during the pandemic.
Ms. Katz and Republican Suffolk County Election Commissioner Nick LaLota were asked to present plans for the General Election by Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming of the South Fork, who chairs the county’s Ways & Means Committee.
“I hope this discussion will help clear up some of the confusion expressed to me. The pandemic has posed such extraordinary constraints on us,” said Ms. Fleming, who added that both early voting and using a “temporary illness” excuse to file an absentee ballot are new to Suffolk County.
“Voting is a sacred duty. It’s the underpinning of our democracy,” she added. “We want to make sure everyone who is eligible and wants to vote has their vote counted.”
Throughout the hour-long conversation, Ms. Katz, who has been a commissioner for 16 years, explained in detail many answers to voter questions her office has received this year, while Mr. LaLota, who has been a commissioner for about five-and-a-half years reminded the committee that the Board of Elections receives its funding from the County Legislature for all its programs, including those mandated without funding by New York State and for the addition of extra early voting sites, which is slated to cost $358,000 for 12 sites this November.
The Suffolk County Board of Elections instated a major consolidation of polling places in this spring’s Democratic primary because poll inspectors were unwilling to come to work during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ms. Katz told the county committee.
“In the primary, understandably, our inspectors were afraid to come to work,” said Ms. Katz, who said that only about 20 percent of poll inspectors were willing to work at the primary. “The best news is New York is doing so much better. Ninety-five percent of our inspectors are willing to come to work. Every polling place will be open and there will be inspectors that are working.”
She added that the county already has 611 new staff members coming on board for the General Election.
Ms. Katz laid out answers to some of the top questions she’s been receiving in her office, many of which she said came from voters who are watching the national news and hearing things that do not apply to New York State.
Top among such concerns are “ballot drop boxes,” which are not legal in New York, she said, because New York requires a strict chain of custody for ballots and people could tamper with drop boxes. Even early voting locations are staffed by the Suffolk County Board of Elections around the clock for nine days, to ensure the ballots already cast are safe.
Ms. Katz said absentee ballots in sealed envelopes can be dropped off by a voter or a friend of the voter at the Suffolk County Board of Elections at 700 Yaphank Avenue Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and they can also be dropped off with poll workers at any early voting location or at the 338 polling places expected to be open on Election Day.
This is something “you have always been allowed to do, but it’s never been as big an issue until the issue with the post office” delays, said Ms. Katz.
In this spring’s Democratic Primary, in which about 85,000 Suffolk voters cast absentee ballots, Ms. Katz said about 3,000 ballots were not counted because they did not meet state election law requirements.
She said 1,206 of those ballots were postmarked too late, 761 were undeliverable to the address given by the voter, 425 had no signature and 383 of the people who requested the ballot decided to vote in person.
After a lawsuit by the League of Women Voters, New York voters whose absentee ballots can’t be counted due to unintended mistakes like not signing the ballot will now be mailed what’s called a “cure letter” asking them to sign and validate that they did intend to vote by absentee ballot. Ms. Katz said the Board of Elections is required to send out such letters within 24 hours of becoming aware of the issue with the ballot.
“No commissioner likes to throw out a ballot when somebody in good faith sends it in,” she said.
Ms. Katz added that, while the ballot application mailed to voters for the June Democratic primary allowed them to check off boxes to receive ballots for both the primary and general elections, voters must fill out a new application for the general election.
“People must apply again if you want a ballot for the November election,” said Ms. Katz.
New York State is also requiring the Board of Elections to send out mailers to each household in the county by next week, containing information on who in the household is registered to vote, where their polling place will be on Nov. 3, early voting locations and hours and the process for voting absentee.
Ms. Katz said the Board of Elections is actively seeking workers to help process absentee ballots and to become poll inspectors during early voting and on Election Day. Applicants can call the Board of Elections at 631.852.4500 for more information.
Mr. LaLota said the county is expecting about 250,000 of its one million voters to use absentee ballots in November. He added that you can request an absentee ballot but change your mind and vote in person instead.
Ms. Katz said the two week delay in counting absentee ballots, which raised some concerns after the spring primary, is in part due to the Board of Elections cross-referencing absentee ballots with in-person voter records to ensure each voter cast just one ballot.
Mr. LaLota said that, if voters don’t hear from the Board of Elections after they mail in their absentee ballot, “the presumption is that we received it,” but said their office has a team of 12 people in a phone bank at 631.852.4500 who can confirm if the ballot was received.
“They’re ready, willing and able to answer questions,” he said.
While the Board of Elections has added three new early voting locations in Brookhaven, Islip and Huntington townships for the General Election, the early voting site on Shelter Island has been eliminated.
Mr. LaLota said that last year, the first year of early voting and a local election year, Brookhaven’s site saw the most early voters, with 3,209 people casting ballots there, while Shelter Island saw the fewest voters, with 509 voters casting ballots there.
Shelter Island has just about 2,400 residents but is geographically isolated from the rest of Long Island, requiring a ferry ride to the nearest polling places in Southold, Southampton or East Hampton.
Legislator Sam Gonzalez of Brentwood spoke passionately at the hearing about the need for more early voting locations in his district. One of the three new sites is at the Knights of Columbus hall on Second Avenue in Brentwood, which is within the Town of Islip.
“The Town of Islip has spent over $3 million in lawsuits based on minorities being able to vote,” he said. “Half of the individuals in the town of Islip are Latinos. The majority are north of the Southern State Parkway… I’m going to speak up for the needs of my district.”
“Our voting numbers have been in a position that it is so low,” he said, adding that many elderly residents who live north of the Southern State Parkway have no transportation and couldn’t get to the Islip Town Hall Annex, which was the original early voting site in the town.
North Fork Legislator Al Krupski spoke up for the Shelter Island site.
“You have to take a ferry there and a ferry back. It’s really not as convenient as driving an extra 10 minutes on the Southern State Parkway,” he said. “They are physically isolated. It’s a real disincentive. I would ask you to reconsider that.”
Legislator Kara Hahn, of Port Jefferson, said she was concerned that the new Brookhaven early voting site is at the Mastic Community Center, while the original site is at Brookhaven Town Hall in Farmingville, and none of the sites are in the northern part of Brookhaven Town.
“Brookhaven is 500,000 people. It’s a tremendously huge town,” said Ms. Hahn. “I’m obviously concerned that Shelter Island lost a site… Brookhaven town is tremendous. To have the same number of sites as Shelter Island is ridiculous.”
Ms. Hahn, a Democrat also questioned potential political motivation about placement of the second site in Mastic/Shirley, the hometown of Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin.
“There is a political reason to chose Shirley. I don’t think I want to know how you decided Shirley,” said Ms. Hahn.
Mr. LaLota said the Board of Elections determined the new early voting sites based on where people are facing economic hardships, juggling jobs and child care.
“That’s seen in the three locations where we have put early voting,” he said, adding that the Suffolk County Legislature funds the Board of Elections, and they could add more sites, including the one on Shelter Island, if they had more funding.
“It costs a fortune,” said Ms. Katz of early voting. “The chain of custody and security for ballots is the primary rule. We have full time Board of Elections people there all the time, and we are hiring outsiders for the night shift. Someone has to be there at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and 3 o’clock in the morning. It’s not that simple for us to find organizations or locations that will allow us to be there. That also becomes a huge issue. This is one of the compromises we talk about.”
Ms. Katz said that, of $2 million included in the federal CARES coronavirus relief act for voting in Suffolk County, the county spent $1.8 million on the primary, and has just $200,000 left for the general election, which will be spent on new absentee ballot envelopes mandated by New York State.
When asked by Legislator Anthony Piccirillo of Holbrook how long it would take to finish counting ballots in Suffolk, Mr. LaLota cracked “what are you doing for Christmas?”
“The governor put out another directive — we have to start within 48 hours,” said Ms. Katz. “My feeling is we finished within two weeks and certified in two weeks with the primary… But whether or not the lawyers show up is nothing we can calculate. That slows it down in a different way. We will do it as fast as possible.”
“Fast but getting the right result,” said Mr. LaLota. “I am confident we will get the right result.”