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NY expands absentee voting after defeat of ballot measure

FILE - Absentee ballots are seen in a sealed ballot box during early voting in the primary election, Monday, June 14, 2021, at the Church of St. Anthony of Padua in New York. New York would extend absentee balloting through the rest of 2022 under a bill that breezed through the Democratic-controlled Senate and Assembly this month. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New Yorkers can again choose to vote by absentee rather than face the risk of catching COVID-19 at polling sites through the rest of 2022 under a bill that Gov. Kathy Hochul signed Friday.

The Assembly passed the bill 100-45 on Wednesday, and the Senate passed the bill last week with a 42-21 vote. One Democrat in the Senate and two Democrats in the Assembly opposed it.

Currently, New York law only allows an individual to request an absentee ballot if they will be absent from their county or New York City on Election Day, or if they have an illness, physical disability, or care-taking responsibilities for someone who is ill or disabled.

The new law again amends the definition of illness to include when a voter can’t go to a polling place because of the risk of contracting or spreading a harmful disease. New York first passed such legislation in 2020.

The Democratic governor has said she intends to allow every New Yorker to vote by absentee in 2022.

“Gov. Hochul is committed to restoring faith in government and elections, which is why she proposed a number of State of the State reforms to improve access to voting and safeguard elections in New York,” her spokesperson Hazel Crampton-Hays said.

The legislation’s passage comes months after voters in November defeated two proposed constitutional amendments that would have allowed same-day voting registration and permanent no-excuse absentee voting. Democrats wielding a legislative supermajority had expected both to easily pass.

“The failure of the voting rights ballot proposals in New York and the threat to voting rights across our nation place an even greater responsibility on the Legislature to do the right thing and prioritize voting reforms,” Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a Democrat representing Bronx and Westchester, said.

One rejected amendment would have allowed for lawmakers to pass same-day voter registration by getting rid of a requirement that people register to vote at least 10 days before an election. The other failed amendment would have removed a constitutional restriction limiting absentee voting to New Yorkers who are ill, have a physical disability or are outside the country.

Democrats passed the constitutional amendments for two years in a row in the Legislature: a requirement for getting referendum on the ballot.

But the state’s Conservative Party waged a successful, multi-million campaign against the referendum in the final days leading up to the November election. State campaign finance reports show the party spent nearly $4.2 million on radio and online ads beginning in mid-October.

The Conservative Party’s ads argued that same day voter registration and expanded absentee voting would weaken election security.

Democrats did not mount a statewide campaign in support of the referendum — a decision blasted by voting right supporters who have long pushed for the reforms.

New York still took some steps to make voting easier last year: Hochul signed bills in December to increase the mandated number of early voting sites and require absentee ballots to be counted in time for unofficial results to be known on election night.

Since New York rolled out early voting in recent years, voting rights activists have criticized the lack of polling places and limited hours.

And in 2020, the presidential election was marked by delays as counties tallied up a tsunami of absentee ballots.

Republican state election commissioners Peter Kosinski and Anthony Casale slammed Hochul and lawmakers for passing the two laws: “These actions are a direct threat to the integrity of the election process, designed to make it easier to manipulate the votes of people voting by absentee ballot.”

A December review by The Associated Press found fewer than 475 potential cases of voter fraud in the six battleground states disputed by former President Donald Trump — a number that would have made no difference in the 2020 presidential election.

Leaders of the state Senate say the Democratic majority will pass a pile of other election bills this year: ranging from allowing portable polling sites to make early voting easier in rural areas, to allowing local election boards to set up drop boxes for absentee ballots.

Currently, New York only accepts voting registration applications that are postmarked 25 days before an election and received 20 days before a primary or general election.

Another bill supported by Senate Democrats would allow voters to register sooner: boards of election could accept applications received 10 days before a primary or general election.

The fate of other election bills is unclear.

Sen. Brad Hoylman is again proposing to prohibit the use of campaign funds to pay a candidate’s attorney’s fees or other costs from criminal or civil litigation. He’s argued that it’s unfair for donors to fund legal bills.

Hoylman’s bill was referred to the Senate elections committee in early January.

It’s failed to pass for years, with critics pointing to the higher threat of legal action facing lawmakers.

Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo has reported paying $1.7 million in legal fees over the past year. That includes nearly $900,000 for his attorney Rita Glavin, who has represented Cuomo in criminal and civil probes.

Cuomo also paid $800,000 to Sullivan & Cromwell, whose attorney Sharon Nelles helped represent Cuomo for the sexual harassment probe launched by the state attorney general’s office.

Cuomo could ask the state to reimburse his campaign for those fees following an Albany judge’s decision to dismiss the sole criminal charge against Cuomo stemming from sexual harassment allegations.

Cuomo’s spokesperson Rich Azzopardi said he does not know whether Cuomo will do so.