Some lawmakers hope to finish out the session — and keep voters engaged — despite COVID-19 crisis

Photo courtesy of NY Senate Media Services
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins speaks on a bill that would grant paid leave for workers who must quarantine because of the coronavirus. Usually during session the chamber is filled with senators and staff. Because of social distancing and to prevent the spread of Covid-19, only the majority and minority leaders and their deputies were in the chamber with limited staff.

On Wednesday, April 8, Senator James Skoufis, D-Woodbury, Senator Gustavo Rivera, D-University Heights, Assemblyman Ron Kim, D-Flushing, and the good government group Common Cause New York held a virtual conference to discuss the the importance of finishing a productive legislative session.

In order to pass the budget amidst the COVID-19 crisis, both the Assembly and the Senate have adopted rule changes that will allow lawmakers to vote remotely on a limited or as-needed basis, but neither house has specifically indicated exactly when session will resume, if at all.

Under the legislative calendar developed in late 2019, the Legislature is officially on break until April 20 but after break, was scheduled to convene 19 additional days through June 2.

There has been no indication if and when they will return to Albany this session, or if they will be voting on laws remotely somehow. 

The lawmakers who spoke last week on a conference call discussed several issues related to the COVID-19 crisis they say need attention now, such as absentee voting, balancing the Legislature’s power in the budget, health care reform, and antibody immunity testing.

While Skoufis, Rivera and Kim urged lawmakers to convene remotely to pass laws related to the coronavirus outbreak, other groups such as Tenants PAC, Drug Policy Alliance, and survivors of child sex abuse, have also called for lawmakers to address housing reform, legalized marijuana, and extending the Child Victims Act look back window, among other issues.

“Democracy doesn’t pause, it adapts. While the governor continues to triage the COVID crisis, the Legislature must take advantage of existing technologies to continue doing the people’s business remotely,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY. “Public services is a matter of moral leadership, and New Yorkers need our elected representatives to commit to staying in remote session now more than ever.”  

Rivera brought up his sponsored New York Health Act, bill S3577 which would establish a New York Health Plan to provide healthcare for every New Yorker. The bill is sponsored in the Assembly, A5248 by Richard Gottfried.

“We are only as safe as the person who is least safe, among us. And I believe that it is the time to have that discussion,” said Rivera. “We have to face the very bold challenges around [health care, housing and taxation]… I’m looking forward to having those discussions with my colleagues, and to being able to continue to be the legislative body.”

“Passing a state budget this year was merely the minimum requirement for us as legislators in New York,” said Assemblyman Kim. “In the midst of an worldwide health and economic crisis, there are still far too many essential issues that we must still address in New York before this session can truly end. 

“[There are] bills that we simply must pass to adequately address the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kim said.

Voting on bills in the New York state Senate historically has been done in-person. In order to turn to the use of teleconferencing devices to vote remotely in the Senate, voting laws would have to be amended.

On March 30, the Assembly bill E00854, sponsored by Crystal People-Stokes, D-Buffalo, passed. This would  allow Assembly members to enter votes electronically.

The bill makes other adjustments to the voting procedures such as limiting the amount of time a member can speak on a bill to 15 minutes and excusing technical failure during deliberation.

The Senate Majority Leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, tweeted that there would be protocols put in place in the Senate but there have been no bills introduced yet.

“This remote voting is not a challenge, [it is] an opportunity… We also can see this as an opportunity to leverage our technology to be more transparent to to actually collaborate with the public…” said Kim “The one thing that I was very disappointed about the budgeting process [is that] we missed an opportunity to execute a transparent system.”

“It’s essential for government to continue carrying out its duties now more than ever,” Skoufis said. “We have lots of work left to do — let’s get to it.”

While legislative bodies are moving to accommodate remote-voting on bills, there has been no talk of remote voting on the New York primary elections and other special elections on June 23.

Bill S871, sponsored by Senator Leroy Comrie, would implement mail-in voting ballots, eliminating the need for absentee ballots.

“We should also see this opportunity to look at what some of the other cities have done in the last couple of years, in terms of allowing voters to vote remotely,” said Kim. “There are really high technologies that have been implemented and some have failed. But we should start examining what that looks like,”

According to Lerner of Common Cause/NY, mail-in voting is simply not an option at this time.

“Common Cause has a very long standing and nuanced position on Internet voting, but the bottom line is, the technology just is not there yet,” said Lerner. “And that’s why we’re expanding absentee [voting because] we believe is the appropriate response now.”

As of April 8, Gov. Cuomo announced he would expand criteria to receive an absentee ballot. Under the old law, to receive an absentee ballot, the voter must prove to be moving, serving in the military, out-of-state, ill or disabled. 

A senate bill S8015A has been introduced to modify New York state’s absentee ballot, which would change the “illness” requirement to include the spread of COVID-19.

“The ultimate goal here is no-excuse-absentee-balloting, which requires a constitutional amendment….” said Skoufis. “That said, [we have to get] as close as we can get legally to no excuse, absentee balloting given the pandemic.”

Some voters may be unaware of how to submit an absentee ballot but stakeholders do not predict issues with educating constituents on the process.

“They send out little postcards to eligible voters about upcoming elections and there’s no reason why they could not very prominently put on those postcards any new eye available opportunity to to engage in absentee balloting,” said Skoufis. 

However, voters who are less educated and not paying attention to the news might not be informed on absentee voting. 

Common Cause and lawmakers at this time believe that continuing with in-person voting is a safe decision for New York. Those who decide to stay home on June 23rd should opt for an absentee ballot.

“It’s where we need our legislators to step in and be sure that the county boards have the resources that they need, and the authority that they need to set up systems quickly and get absentee ballots into the hands of the people who want them,” said Lerner. “But it’s also going to be important that we protect the in-person voting opportunities.”