The Suffolk Board of Elections has stopped automatically allowing walk-in voters to cast their absentee ballots at its Yaphank headquarters after years of allowing the practice, officials said.
Republican Elections Commissioner Nicholas LaLota has ordered GOP election workers to process absentee requests on a first-come, first-served basis, even if that means those who show up in person have to wait hours or return the next day while workers sort through hundreds of mailed-in requests. He said a surge in absentee ballots this year has the office swamped with work.
But Democratic Elections Commissioner Anita Katz said the volume still is lower than in presidential elections, and could be handled while allowing in-person voters.
“We’ve always accommodated voters during a presidential election,” she said. “We’re the Board of Elections. Our job is to help people vote.”
A senior board of election official said 50 to 75 people a day show up hoping to cast absentee ballots, many before they leave town on vacation or to winter elsewhere.
Bob Lewis, 68, and his wife Michele drove from Centerport to Yaphank last Friday to cast absentee ballots before heading to Florida for a vacation.
Unlike in past years when they went into a room in Yaphank to fill out absentee ballots, they were told the ballot would be mailed to them. When Lewis said he'd be driving to Florida and had no mailing address there, workers told him to come back the next day, Saturday, which he did.
Lewis, a registered Democrat, suggested GOP election officials were trying to depress Democratic turnout.
"It's our own little way of suppressing the vote a little bit," said Lewis, a retired television director for MSG. The driving back-and-forth involves "extra steps some people aren’t going to take,” he said.
LaLota denied Republicans were trying to depress turnout.
He said the Yaphank headquarters shouldn't be treated as a location for early voting, because New York State law has no provision for it. Also, walk-in voters are split between Democrats and Republicans, while mail-in absentee ballots so far have favored Democrats, LaLota said.
"Taking these applications in the order that they're received does the most amount of good for the most amount of people," LaLota said. "If Republicans wanted to suppress Democrat votes, they'd stall on processing mailed-in applications ... The fact that we process these applications on the same day is evidence to the contrary."
LaLota said election workers could process 30 absentee mail ballots per hour, versus about five an hour for people who walk in.
The way the board is set up under state election law, a bipartisan team is needed to hand out ballots, meaning Democrats and Republicans need to agree on a policy.
Katz said, “We’re trying to accommodate people. Commissioner LaLota is making it very difficult.”
By David M. Schwartz
David Schwartz covers Suffolk government and politics. A native Long Islander, he's worked at Newsday since 2013.