On June 23, registered Democrats went to the polls to cast votes in the primary for state Assembly in the 93rd District. Three and a half weeks passed after election day until the Westchester County Board of Elections completed its count of absentee ballots and announced the final results, declaring Bedford Town Supervisor Chris Burdick the winner in a five-way race. 

The delay was not unexpected. A surge in absentee voting due to COVID-19 fears cast a heavy toll on election workers and created a bottleneck in vote counting. Not surprising, but the delay was a harbinger of the problems we are likely to face again, only on a larger scale, in the November general election.

According to our analysis, about 60% of the votes in the primary race were mail-ins. The percentages in our three towns were as follows: Pound Ridge, 64%; Bedford, 62%; and Lewisboro, 51%. A contributing factor may have been the lack of a local site for early voting — the closest location was Leonard Park in Mount Kisco — as safety concerns limited the availability of these facilities.

Conditions in Westchester were worse in the spring when voters were contemplating the safest way to participate in the primary. While there is a somewhat greater sense of public confidence now, at least, there’s no telling what October and November will bring. What’s safe to say is turnout will be a good deal larger than it was in the party primary, and voters will likely continue to lean heavily on absentee voting.

Westchester County lawmakers see this slow-moving train wreck and seem committed to diverting a disaster. They are acting now to develop a plan, in close conjunction with the Westchester Board of Elections, to improve voting conditions in November. 

“The June 23 primaries were conducted under a perfect storm of difficult conditions because of the COVID-19 pandemic which affected the BoE’s ability to recruit and train poll workers,” the County Board of Legislators said recently in a statement. “In addition, changes in the availability of traditional polling sites meant that many new locations had to be found.”

The Board of Legislators convened a meeting this past Wednesday to hear from the commissioners of the Board of Elections on improvement measures and ways to navigate through the unique challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The same day, County Executive George Latimer released a four-point plan aimed at offering assistance to the BoE in advance of Election Day 2020. The plan, which was previously presented to BoE Commissioners Reginald Lafayette and Douglas Colety, includes assistance with additional polling place inspectors, replacement polling sites, additional temporary staff for absentee ballot counting and early voting.

Among the new procedures recommended by the legislators and Mr. Latimer is utilizing Westchester County employees, who have Election Day off, as polling place inspectors, and securing new polling sites to keep a reasonable number of locations open but avoid the use of nursing homes and other high COVID-19 risk areas. 

He also said the county is committed to providing resources to the BoE to hire part-time poll workers to count absentee ballots as well as open up early voting locations “so that any duly registered Westchester voter can vote at any early voting location site.”

Earlier this month, an Election Information Gathering Task Force also convened by the county heard from more than 70 members of the public who registered to speak during the online event. Many of the speakers were longtime poll workers. In addition, the task force also received more than 150 written comments. The speakers and other commenters offered improvement ideas on a range of topics including early voting, communications, poll worker recruitment and training, PPE and safety supplies, poll sites, and absentee voting logistics. What came out of the session, according to the Board of Legislators, was “valuable and real-world user-experience data we hope will be useful to the BoE.”

Commenting on his plan released earlier this week, Mr. Latimer said: “While the Westchester Board of Elections is state controlled, we are all in this together. This is our County and we have an American duty to make the voting process as accessible as possible to those who want to exercise their civic rights. I want people to vote, I want them to be engaged — and we are here to help.”

After all the problems that surfaced during the primary elections, we think Westchester County’s leaders deserve credit for advancing the conversations with the BoE commissioners about improving the voting process. They are doing so with a sense of purpose and urgency. Their engagement on the issue won’t guarantee needed improvements, but with three months to go, at least it gives Westchester voters a better chance of success at getting all of our voices heard in November. 

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