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Guest Column: When it comes to voting, the devil is in the details

By now, many of us feel like the prisoner in Frank R. Stockton’s 1882 tale, “The Lady or the Tiger?” It’s about an innocent hostage, barbarically tossed into the center of an arena, who must chance his fate by choosing between two doors. Behind one is a ravenous tiger; behind the other a woman whom he must wed for life whether he likes her or not. The dreadful refrains in this story sorrowfully resonate throughout this Age of Corona, particularly with the way we must choose to vote in the upcoming November 2020 election.

If I vote by mail, will my absentee ballot arrive in time? Is it COVID-safe to instead vote in person? To sort through the conundrums of these alternatives, I reached out to government sources and to our 1st Congressional District candidates, Republican incumbent Lee Zeldin and Democratic challenger Nancy Goroff. What I didn’t learn was as important as what I learned.

I learned that to vote by mail you must, ASAP, obtain an absentee ballot application. The Suffolk County Board of Elections warns that the post office “cannot guarantee timely delivery of ballots applied for less than 15 days before an election.” Applications are usually available at the post office. Other options include downloading the application from New York State (elections.ny.gov) or applying online for an application to be mailed to you from the BOE (absenteeballot.elections.ny.gov). The application requires a reason for your request; risk or fear of illness, including COVID-19, is a valid response. Once you’ve mailed in your completed application the BOE will mail you an actual ballot. Fill it in, sign it and, with Godspeed, quickly mail it back to the BOE in the provided security envelope.

Is voting in person a simpler — and safe — option? The BOE website clearly states Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s April Executive Order, No. 202.17: “… you are required to wear a mask/face covering and maintain 6 feet of distance when entering any Board of Elections facility or voting poll site.” But enforcing this order seems iffy when you read the New York State Department of Health (dmna.ny.gov) explanation of the mandate. It surprisingly states: 

If a voter refuses to wear a mask, poll workers should consider providing the voter the opportunity to cast a ballot using any alternative voting locations or methods available at the poll site, if available. Otherwise, the voter should be allowed to vote normally, and poll workers should follow safety and cleaning protocols.

Really? What are these protocols? Suffolk County Board of Elections commissioner Nicholas Lalota never answered my calls or email. Telephone staff would only say: “Inspectors are trained to deal with the protocols” and “Unmasked voters have to wait until the polling area is empty. Pencils and surfaces will be sanitized.” 

But what about the non-mask-wearer’s breath particles wafting through airspace when I show up? How will monitors protect themselves? And how will they deal with the flaring tempers of those who must subsequently navigate a possibly contaminated space? Scott Russell, Southold Town supervisor, is aware of the problem and expressed his concern when we spoke by phone. He indicated that “while there is the presumption that the Board of Elections is in charge of putting protocols in place, I’m going to contact them to see if they need help with compliance. But I won’t have the town step in unilaterally … It is a bad precedent for a government agency to get involved with policing of voting.” 

He may well be correct, and it’s comforting to know our towns’ leaders are alert and waiting in the wings. But Mr. Russell’s response also stirs the underpinnings of controversies surrounding today’s volatile law enforcement issues and the politicizing of our voting process.

That is likely why Mr. Zeldin avoided the basic questions I emailed to both him and Ms. Goroff: Do you support absentee ballots and the wearing of masks at polling places? How will you as a legislator going forward support the integrity of our election process? Responding for Nancy Goroff, the Goroff Campaign indicated that she supports absentee ballots, and referred to an informative 97-second video on her website that instructs viewers how to obtain and fill out the absentee application; no personal information required in return for this service. Pointing to the scientific evidence supporting mask wearing, the same spokeswoman affirmed the candidate’s strong support of mask use during the pandemic and her support going forward of our right to vote safely in polling places.

By contrast, the Zeldin campaign responded to my query with this: “ … your questions come under the authority of the State of New York and … because we work for you on the federal level, we do not have jurisdiction in such state matters. We have forwarded your information to your State Assemblyman.” Mr. Zeldin will, nevertheless, offer you a quick link to the BOE website to access an absentee ballot, though, unlike Ms. Goroff, he requires that you first divulge your personal contact information.

What I learned this week is the extent to which our system is letting us down. But staring down the choices between two ruinous doors, I met the devil in the insidious details of this electoral process, and saw how crucial it is for each and every one of us to fight however we can to make every vote count and to count every vote.

Joyce Beckenstein is a writer living in Mattituck.