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Officials and candidates have advice for anyone voting absentee this year: Mail in your ballot early

Ellen Abbott
A warehouse at the Onondaga County Board of Elections is being used to open tens of thousands of absentee ballots

Mail-in ballots are getting more scrutiny than ever before this year. More people than ever are expected to use the option to cast an absentee ballot by mail so they don’t have to go to potentially crowded polling places during the pandemic, and elections officials and candidates are taking steps to make sure every vote gets counted.

It's one of the few things Rep. John Katko (R-Camillus) and his Democratic challenger Dana Balter agree on this election season: making sure people who plan to vote by mail do it as soon as possible. Katko's campaign has been sending out postcards to voters with that message.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News
Volunteers at the Onondaga County Board of Elections open absentee ballots and check to make sure they are filled out correctly

"A lot of people don’t feel like going out in public, and we have to make sure they still vote," Katko said. "It’s far more important that they vote, so if we can help them along, that’s great."

Balter said that early voting message is on her campaign’s website, mailings, and interactions with voters.

"If you’re planning to vote by mail, get your ballot now. And when you get the ballot, fill it out and mail it in," Balter said. "That way, if there happen to be any delays in the mail, you have enough of a cushion that you don’t need to worry about it.

In Onondaga County, a portion of the warehouse earmarked for workers inspecting voting machines has a new purpose. The space is being used to open thousands of ballots that have already started pouring into the county.

"It’s like a little factory back here, said Onondaga County Democratic Elections Commissioner Dustin Czarny.

Extra workers have been hired to deal with the crush of absentee ballots. More than 55,000 ballot applications have been processed as of Monday, and nearly 20,000 have already been returned. Czarny said that’s a big percentage of the expected 304,000 voters expected to cast a ballot during this election. 

Voting absentee does come with some issues. Czarny said many ballots are discarded each year because of technicalities.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News
One absentee ballot returned to the Onondaga County Board of Elections had several old election stamps affixed on the envelope

"Not signing the envelope at all. That’s the biggest thing that happens every year," he said. "And not sealing the envelope. People don’t want to lick the envelopes right now because of the coronavirus. We understand that. So we’re asking them to put a damp sponge around it, because it does need to be sealed by the voter."

There’s a new law this year that could save a few hundred ballots from being tossed. When a voter requests an absentee, if there is something wrong with an application, there’s a "cure process" in place.

"Now we review them as they come in, both their signature and the instructions, and if they’ve filled out everything right, great," Czarny said. "If not, we will send them a letter and they will sign the letter."

Czarny said absentee ballots across the state have also been redesigned so they're easier to understand. 

The biggest advice he and candidates have if people choose to vote by absentee ballot? Request is as soon as possible.

"We really suggest October 20th, to give us enough time to mail the ballot to you and for you to mail it back," Czarny said.

Absentee ballots must be postmarked by November 3 and must arrive at the Board of Elections by November 10 in order to be counted. If people are worried their ballot may not arrive in time, there are other options. Absentee ballots can be dropped off at any early voting location during the state's early voting period between October 24 and November 1. Absentee ballots can also be dropped off on Election Day at any polling place or at any county Board of Elections office by 9 p.m.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.