Suffolk County reverses decision on how absentee ballots are cast

The Suffolk County Board of Elections has reversed a controversial decision to deny voters the ability to cast absentee ballots in person as they are received at its Yaphank headquarters.

The decision came Wednesday afternoon.

“This decision is a win for voters. We will remain vigilant in identifying and calling out any additional efforts to prevent people in Suffolk County from exercising their right to vote,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said in a statement.

Suffolk County Board of Elections officials announced a solution in a statement around 5 p.m. Wednesday.  According to GOP Elections Commissioner Nicholas LaLota, the Board of Elections has hired four temporary employees who will enable the board to do what is “required and what is desired,” he said.

Voters who will be absent from Suffolk County on Election Day can visit the Board of Elections in Yaphank during business hours to apply for an absentee ballot and receive one to fill out in less than 30 minutes, Mr. LaLota assured.

Earlier this week, Newsday reported that Mr. LaLota ordered election workers to process absentee requests on a first-come, first-served basis.

The result?

Those who showed up in person to cast an absentee ballot reported waiting hours to be processed and even being told to return the next day.

According to Mr. Bellone, the practice of processing in-person ballots has been long standing for years. Disallowing absentee ballots to be cast in person is “tantamount” to voter suppression, the county executive said before the decision had been reversed Wednesday. “Quite frankly, this is an affront to democracy.”

“In practice, it has taken Board employees approximately five times as long to process an in-person absentee application than one that is mailed in,” Mr. LaLota said. 

He attributed two causes that led to the suspension of the practice this year. “The board has received a near record number of mailed-in absentee ballot requests,” he wrote in an email.

The second cause, he said, was that the final ballot wasn’t finalized until Oct. 9, when the Conservative Party submitted a certificate of substitution naming Democrat Theresa Whalen as its candidate for Judge of the Surrogate’s Court.

“As a result, much of the work that would have gone into preparing machines in late September had to be put off until much later in the election cycle. This has caused an extra crunch in resources, and put the discretionary practice on ice,” Mr. LaLota said.

On Wednesday morning, the county executive filed a complaint with the state Board of Elections, asking for intervention to reverse the policy. He threatened legal action in court if the decision was not rescinded.

Allegations of voter suppression have popped up nationwide during this election cycle, from purging voter rolls in Georgia to restrictive voter ID laws in North Dakota that disproportionately impact indigenous voters. Long lines, changes to polling places, and other oddities have become routine experiences, most notably in communities of color.

This week, those tactics arrived in Suffolk County too, as misleading campaign mailers were sent out by Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley). A postcard sent by the Zeldin for Congress campaign quotes Mr. Zeldin as saying, “The right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights guaranteed to us. It protects our democracy by making officials accountable to the people. I urge you to exercise that right, by completing your requested absentee ballot and postmarking it by November 6th.”

The actual deadline is one day earlier; Nov. 5.

His opponent, Democrat Perry Gershon, accused the incumbent congressman of targeting college-aged voters and communities of color.

Mr. Zeldin’s campaigned has chalked it up to a mistake.

“We have seen this kind of behavior and activity in other parts of the country and frankly, I did not think we would see it here in New York,” Mr. Bellone said, adding that the Board of Elections further disenfranchised voters by sending out absentee ballots five days late. “People were waiting for their absentee ballots to arrive,” he said.

Reached by phone by the Times Review Wednesday, Mr. Bellone said Suffolk County residents should not be punished for trying to cast their vote. “[Absentee voters] are going the extra mile to do what we encourage all citizens to do,” he said.

Asked how these actions are reflective of current politics, Mr. Bellone offered this:

“It tells me we’re in strange times. We see footage of people in other states where they’re waiting hours online to cast their vote. That’s unacceptable. We should never allow that in New York.”

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