COVID-19 has raised many questions about voting in the 2020 election: how do we keep poll workers and voters safe during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic? What changes can be made to make voting more accessible? What are some of the challenges voters still face? In this episode of Policy Outsider, guests Laura Bierman, executive director of the League of Women Voters (LWV) of New York State, and Jennifer Wilson, LWV legislative director, discuss changes made to voting procedures for the 2020 election and the work of LWV to expand and ensure voting access. The conversation also covers how Board of Elections across New York State are responding to the pandemic, including operational changes made to protect voters and poll workers.


Laura Bierman, Executive Director, League of Women Voters of New York State

Jennifer Wilson, Legislative Director, League of Women Voters of New York State

  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors. 

    Alexander Morse  0:59

    One of the main stories of the 2020 election has to do with the act of voting. How do we keep poll workers and voters safe during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic? What type of voting does my state allow? Is there enough faith and security in our institutions to administer and tally absentee and mail-in ballots? This is Policy Outsider. I’m your host Alex Morse. Voting in the 2020 election, according to our guests, Laura Bierman, executive director, and Jennifer Wilson, legislative director, of the League of Women Voters of New York State, boils down to a discussion about voter education and voter accessibility. During the past several months, the League of Women Voters has been working on ways to remove barriers to voting and ensure that everyone can safely and successfully cast a vote in this year’s election. Both Laura and Jennifer join us to discuss their recent work ensuring and protecting voting rights, including a recent lawsuit that will allow voters in New York to correct their mistakes on their absentee ballots, as well as what else is on the horizon. This episode was recorded over Zoom, the video teleconference software, so please bear with us with any minor technical glitch that you may hear as it doesn’t distract from a great conversation. Coming up next.

    Alexander Morse  1:41

    Welcome to today’s episode of Policy Outsider. I’m with the League of Women Voters Executive Director Laura Bierman and Legislative Director Jennifer Wilson, who will join us today to provide background on changes made at the state level in the last couple of years aimed at making voting more accessible. And we’ll also discuss some of the context surrounding this year’s election, as well as some new legislation pertaining to voting in New York. Laura, Jennifer, thanks for joining today.

    Laura Bierman  2:10


    Alexander Morse 2:11

    So obviously, the 2020 election is just right around the corner and I know the League of Women Voters has been really active in the voting space to make sure that people are aware of what’s going on in this 2020 environment. So just to give a little bit of background on the League of Women Voters, what have you guys done in New York specifically, recently, to make voting more accessible?

    Laura Bierman 2:33

    One of our main purposes is voter education. Our big push is always to make sure that people know how they can find information about their ballot, about how to register to vote, how to vote in person, how to vote by absentee ballot. So our biggest effort in the last year has been education on the new early voting, as well as this spring, and now on how to vote by absentee ballot. Because they did change this spring with a bunch of executive orders by the governor and then the legislature did act in August to make a few of those changes, put them into statute. It’s been a lot of changes on how to vote in this last year. And our biggest push is to make sure everyone understands that and knows how they can do it, especially now, safely.

    Alexander Morse 3:32

    So you used a couple of examples, early voting and preregistration. Could you just go over those for the listeners, please?

    Jennifer Wilson 3:39

    Sure. Up until 2019, New York State was one of only a few states in the nation that didn’t have early voting as an option. So in 2019, we passed a law to allow New York voters to have nine days of early voting. This year, we’re going to start on October 24 and we’re going to go through November 1. There’s a day break in between the last day of early voting and Election Day and then we’ll have our regular election. Poll sites vary throughout the counties and hours for poll sites vary as well. Some of the other reforms are talked about, like same-day voter registration, is actually a constitutional amendment that has to have second passage before we can have it. So there’s some ongoing policy happening, but I think our biggest accomplishment from 2019 was definitely early voting.

    Alexander Morse 4:23

    And I know that the League of Women Voters actually just settled a lawsuit concerning absentee ballots. Could you elaborate a little bit on that, please?

    Laura Bierman 4:31

    Sure. We had a lawsuit against the state Board of Elections, concerning what happens when the absentee ballot is received by the Board of Elections, it might be missing a signature or there’s a stray mark or it wasn’t sealed properly. In the past, there was nothing so that the voter wouldn’t know if their ballot was rejected or counted. So there was a lawsuit this summer we settled just in the last few weeks, actually, to allow for what they call curing the ballot. Now there’s processes in place that the Board of Elections will have to contact the voter if there’s an issue with their absentee ballot, and the voter has an opportunity to cure it or fix it. In other words, if they forgot to sign the inside envelope, if the signature didn’t match, because many people registered to vote maybe 50 years ago, and now their signature doesn’t look like it did when they first registered to vote. So if the Board of Elections has any question about their ballot, they can’t just reject it, they must contact the voter by phone, email, or by mail, and give them an opportunity to fix their ballot. I’ll let Jennifer explain, there’s some other parts of the lawsuit which are great because they automatically changed and said they can’t reject the ballot just for some of these issues. And Jen, if you want to explain those.

    Jennifer Wilson 6:05

    There have been some legislation accompanying this back in July, as well, that passed that codifies some of this absent of the lawsuit. But the lawsuit was great because it expanded on some of the reasons that ballots can be thrown out. In the past, if you marked outside of the designated area, if you filled out your ballot in pencil instead of pen or use a color ink that wasn’t black or blue, or if you sealed your inner affirmation envelope with tape, those were all reasons your ballot could have been thrown out. And voters would never have any idea that their ballot was thrown out for these silly frivolous reasons. Now those will no longer be the case, you can fill out your ballot in red pen, you can seal your ballot with a sticker that says I voted, you really have a lot more freedom now and a lot less restrictions when you do your absentee ballot so that your ballots not just going to get thrown out and you’re never going to hear about it.

    Laura Bierman 6:52

    That being said though, we want to make sure people understand, read the instructions carefully and follow it as much as they can so that there isn’t a question about whether their ballot counts if they are submitting an absentee ballot.

    Alexander Morse 7:07

    Do either of you have any idea about how many votes weren’t tallied because of these, Jennifer as you said, frivolous errors?

    Jennifer Wilson 7:15

    It’s hard to say because up until now, there hasn’t been any sort of reporting mechanism for this. And even when we filed our lawsuit and we’re pointing out that New York State was one of the worst states. In 2018, we had 14 percent of our absentee ballots throughout one of the highest in the nation, that data wasn’t even collected by the state. It was collected by the Federal Election Assistance Commission. So this data wasn’t even readily available in the past and now there’ll be some sort of a mechanism for actually keeping track of this data because they will have to report to the voter that their ballots being challenged and the grounds for which the ballot is being challenged.

    Alexander Morse 7:49

    So the League of Women Voters, as you just had mentioned, has been active in recent years making voting more accessible, what broader challenges remain in New York State and generally across the nation?

    Laura Bierman 8:02

    Well, there are two constitutional amendments. Jennifer mentioned one a minute ago, that had first passage in January of 2019, actually, but given our process, it has to wait for a state election. So they have to pass again next spring and then go to the voters in the fall of 2021, if they pass next spring. And those two constitutional amendments, one is to get away from requiring people to give an excuse for an absentee ballot. In New York State, there’s about six excuses or reasons for applying for an absentee ballot. And again, we’re one of the few states that still requires an excuse to get an absentee ballot. So we would then have no excuse absentee ballot, which then anyone could apply for an absentee ballot. We still won’t have mail-in ballot, but it will be that anyone can apply for an absentee ballot. The second one is, as Jennifer mentioned, same-day registration, which means that right now, the Constitution says that you have to register to vote at least 10 days in advance of an election day, the legislature in the 90s added 15 days onto that by statute. So right now, you have to register 25 days before an election day. If this constitutional amendment passes, you could literally walk into a poll site on Election Day and register and vote at the same time. So these are two things that would make it incredibly easier for people to be able to vote in New York State. There are some other things I think, Jen, do you want to talk about some of the other things we’ve talked about?

    Jennifer Wilson 9:45

    Certainly, in New York State, one of our biggest barriers to voting is a lack of funding because our elections are operated at a county level. Counties fund the majority of elections. So we have state Board of Elections and then we have 60 county boards of elections with New York City, the five boroughs operating as one. So there’s a lot of room for improvement in terms of having some uniformity. Early voting is a great example of this. In some counties like Erie County, there’s 37 polling sites. But then other counties like Hamilton County, there’s one early voting polling site. So there’s a lot of disparity between counties and also urban and rural settings of how early voting plays out. And we definitely don’t think that’s fair for voters of New York State to have one part of the state have so much access and another part of the state have almost no access. We did a survey last election in 2019, I should say the last general election of voters who chose to vote early, and yes, the counties there was a significant thing. It was 38 counties that only had a single early voting poll site within their county, which is a huge number compared to our 62 counties. We saw a lot of disparity in those even larger rural counties where there was only one site and people told us, “I would have to drive an hour if I wanted to vote early.” Even here in the Capital Region, in Rensselaer, there were two early voting poll sites, both in the rural parts of the state and no early voting poll site in Troy, which is the largest city in the county. We just got early voting, I think we’ll see a lot of improvement down the road. But the biggest barrier, the reason we can’t have these improvements now is there’s just no money for counties to be able to have the same expansive program as Erie County or down in New York City, how many sites that they have.

    Laura Bierman 11:33

    We should mention that in the statute of early voting, it did say you had to have one poll site for every 50,000 people in your county. So that’s why so many counties that don’t have 50,000 people could have only one poll site, it was legal, it was part of the law. It’s just we think it needs to be expanded. There was an expansion this year that said that the largest municipality in the county, had to have an early poll site as well. But that’s going to put additional cost on many of these rural counties that just don’t have the funding to rent space, have extra poll workers, and manage another poll site.

    Alexander Morse 12:23

    And I’m sure that’s especially tough, considering that we’re operating under these strange circumstances during the COVID-19 pandemic. Laura, I wanted to return quickly to something you said about absentee versus mail-in ballots, that there is a distinction that not everyone understands. So if you could please just elaborate on that.

    Laura Bierman 12:42

    Sure. There’s lots of conversations going around in the country, and then national media and all about vote by mail and mail-in ballots and absentee ballots. In some states, if you register to vote, you will receive a ballot in the mail, you don’t have to request it, you just automatically received the ballot in the mail. In Oregon, for instance, everyone does that. And that’s the only way to vote is by mail-in ballot. In Colorado, everyone receives a ballot but you have an option, you can either mail that in, you can drop it in a drop box, or you can vote in person. Colorado is considered a hybrid state. In New York State, we have absentee ballot. The difference for an absentee ballot is you have to actually apply for the ballot. The ballot will not be sent to everyone who’s registered to vote. It’s only those who apply for a ballot, receive the ballot in a state that has absentee balloting. And it’s a big difference that’s coming out this year even more so because of people not wanting to vote in person.

    Alexander Morse 13:55

    I think you also said that New York State has absentee ballot restrictions. There’s only several reasons as to why you can request one. I think that’s been suspended for the pandemic or the pandemic is one of the reasons.

    Laura Bierman 14:08

    Not exactly suspended. The governor did it in the spring and then the legislature codified it in in August. One of the reasons that you can put on your absentee ballot application is temporary illness or disability. And what they did is they expanded the definition of that to include concern for or risk to COVID or other medical health emergencies. So it’s not anyone can just use temporary illness any year, but because of this year, they expanded that definition so that anyone who is concerned about COVID, they can use that temporary illness or disability. So it’s not a new excuse or new reason. Instead, what they did is they expanded the definition of one of the already existing excuses.

    Alexander Morse 15:03

    Through much of this conversation, we’ve talked about how New York is continuing to expand voter rights. There are some models that could even do it more, like same-day voter registration. But in the nation, where does New York rank in terms of providing access to voters?

    Jennifer Wilson 15:20

    I think we’re doing better now. Last year was our first time having early voting and I don’t think a ton of people were aware of it. A decent amount were and certainly people took advantage of it. But I think this year, in 2020, since it is a major election year, we will see that huge increase of people taking advantage of it. And not to underplay the importance of early voting, we had over a million more voters last year than we did the last time we had local elections. So we did see an uptick in voting. This year, we’re predicting record turnout in New York State. So I think this is going to be the year where we really see the effect that this policy has on voters. It’s definitely just in time, because had we not gotten it last year, we would be in a much different place this year getting ready to vote during COVID. I can’t even imagine the chaos that would be happening right now, if we didn’t have early voting.

    Alexander Morse 16:10

    Continuing on that train of thought, given the pandemic and given how dynamic the landscape is, how is the League of Women Voters working with boards of elections across the state to ensure poll worker and voter safety?

    Jennifer Wilson 16:25

    This is something that we’ve definitely been working with the state Board of Elections, our local chapters throughout the state are 46 local chapters. They do work with their county boards of elections as well. The difference for this election is that we’ve really looked to the state for recommendations on what to do. And the state Board of Elections has made significant recommendations of how to actually operate voting sites during COVID. As well as the absentee regulations, making recommendations on how to process things. So mandating everybody to have a mask, mandating that there be some sort of hand sanitizer available, sanitizing pens or stylus that voters are using to sign in on the poll books or to fill out their ballot. And we also have been trying to tell voters that be prepared that if you do show up to the poll site, there might look like there’s a huge line outside, but it might just be that because of the social distancing rules and the number of people that can be in the site at a given time, there might only be 10 people ahead of you, but it looks like this huge line wrapping around the block because of social distancing. So just don’t be afraid if you see what looks like a swarm of people is actually just people being very good and socially distancing between each other.

    Alexander Morse 17:30

    That’s good advice. I’ve seen a lot of people discuss, at least on social media, how they’re going to be planning to vote this year because they’re afraid of the political situation that’s surrounding the United States Postal Service. In fact, on a recent episode, we spoke on the history of the United States Postal Service and its role as an innovator. But we didn’t really talk about its facilitating the 2020 election. What have either of you observed with regard to the Postal Service and its role in 2020?

    Jennifer Wilson 18:04

    Here in New York State, we don’t typically have a lot of voters who vote by absentee ballots. Only like 4 percent of New York State voters in a given year will opt to do an absentee ballot. So I think that for our purposes in New York State, the USPS has adjusted really well. Laura and I were just talking earlier about how we both got those postcards in the mail from the USPS about voting and the importance of making sure you put your absentee ballot back in the mail right away, and that there can be trust there. So I think they’ve adapted really well, at least here in New York State. In New York City, it was a different situation with ballots not getting timestamped correctly and all these other issues that were happening. But I think we learned from the primary and I think we’re ready to go into 2020. Voters should also remember that you can drop off your absentee ballot at any early voting site or any Election Day poll site in your county. So if you fill out your ballot, you get it, and you’re like, “you know what, I feel uncomfortable. I’m worried it’s not going to make it back. I’m worried I’m not putting proper postage on this.” You can go to any site in your county for early voting or Election Day and you can drop it off. There’s going to be a special line. Some counties might even have a designated drop box. So it’s going to be very obvious where you can take your absentee ballot to hand deliver it.

    Laura Bierman 19:16

    One of our other concerns, though, about the Post Office and this, actually it’s not the Post Office’s fault, but that voters do not know how much postage is going to be needed on the envelope when they mail their absentee ballot. We’ve been trying to encourage the Board of Elections to give guidance to counties when they send out the absentee ballot to give instructions on how much postage is needed to mail it back. Because as you can imagine, in different parts of the state the ballots are longer or shorter or bigger. I always use the example out in Broome and Tioga County, they have some local elections this fall. So they’re going to have not only all the same presidential, congressional, and state races, they also have local races, so their ballot is going to be much bigger than the ballot that has no local races on it. So how are voters going to know? We can tell them right now, put at least two stamps on if you’re mailing it in. We know that one stamp will most likely not be enough. And we’re hoping that counties will give some guidance to voters as to how much postage is needed on their ballot. In the spring, the governor did allow for the ballots to be postage paid. He has not done that this year, this fall. And we do not expect that to happen. So voters do have to put postage on their ballot this fall. So they need to figure out how much postage is needed for the ballot.

    Alexander Morse 20:49

    So it sounds like you two are pretty confident that voters can vote in person safely. And they can also have confidence in voting by mail. You’re working with the Board of Elections to make sure that they can facilitate this. And you mentioned that the state is also helping to expand accessibility. But what is, if anything, the federal government doing in advance of the election to prepare?

    Jennifer Wilson 21:14

    Not very much. I mean, elections are run by states and as I mentioned, they’re run by counties here in New York. I misspoke earlier, some 60 boards of elections, it’s actually 57. I was doing math backwards. So it’s the five boroughs and then the 57 remaining counties. But in the primary election, there was funding. We got a significant amount of funding from the federal government, $25 million to help us get ready for voting during COVID. We spent all of that money on the primary getting ready to vote during COVID, paying for prepaid postage on absentee envelopes, getting our boards of elections ready with the proper PPE that they needed, moving sites in some cases so we had enough room, and of course, paying poll workers. And we needed more money now. We were hoping there was going to be more money. But unfortunately, we’re getting very close to the election and it’s looking like there isn’t going to be any additional support. The Board of Elections has said that they need $50 million to pull this off. And I don’t think that they’re going to get that. So our hope is that the lack of funding is not going to make it so that voters aren’t getting their absentee ballots, poll workers aren’t showing up at the poll sites, there isn’t proper PPE being used. So it’s definitely a concern. As far as the federal government’s role in this, it’s been pretty minimal. Which is unfortunate in this case.

    Alexander Morse 22:32

    Yes, it sure is. So, we’ve spent the whole episode discussing the role of the League of Women Voters as a steward almost for trying to get out the word about voting. So I thought it’d be fitting to end that way. What are the surefire ways to help inform people how to vote?

    Jennifer Wilson  22:50

    Well, I think it’s almost like a multistep thing, where it’s the first step is to make sure you’re registered, make sure that the people around you are registered, and that they’re ready to vote in November or October in this case. And then once you are ready to vote, you have three options to vote. You can vote by mail, absentee ballot, you can vote in-person early voting, or you can vote in person on Election Day. So there’s lots of opportunity there for voters to be ready to vote. We also are telling voters that if you do apply to vote for an absentee ballot and you decide during early voting or on Election Day, “you know what I’d much rather vote in person in New York State.” You can do that. You can go and vote in person instead. Or you can go drop off your ballot, whichever you feel more comfortable doing. The last thing we’re telling voters is get educated about the candidates because everyone’s talking about the president and of course, that’s such an important election, but here in New York State, we also have every member of Congress up for reelection. We have every state senator, we have every state assembly member, we have district attorneys, we have Supreme Court justices. There are a lot of races on the ballot in New York State. And luckily the League has a tool where you can get educated about all of those races, We have information about all the candidates running. You put in your address, you will essentially see a sample ballot with candidate positions linked to their social media, linked to their campaign profile, a photo of them. You can read all about them and be ready to vote in this election.

    Alexander Morse 24:13, you just heard it from Jennifer Wilson, legislative director of the League of Women Voters, also joined by Executive Director Laura Bierman. Thank you two, for coming on today’s show to talk about the election.

    Jennifer Wilson 24:24

    Thanks for having me.

    Laura Bierman 24:25


    Alexander Morse 24:30

    Thanks again to Laura Bierman, executive director and Jennifer Wilson, legislative director of the League of Women Voters of New York State for joining us today to discuss the 2020 election landscape and their work to expand and ensure voting access. If you haven’t yet made a plan for this year’s upcoming election or want to learn more about the races in your area, take Jennifer’s advice and visit for a breakdown of the candidates, polling locations, and voting options. Thanks for listening. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Alexander Morse 25:18

    Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State and the nation. Learn more at or by following RockefellerInst on social media. Have a question or comment or idea? Email us at [email protected].

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Policy Outsider” from the Rockefeller Institute of Government takes you outside the halls of power to understand how decisions of law and policy shape our everyday lives.

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