Early voting in New York easier said than done

This article, by Maury Thompson, originally appeared in The PostStar on January 7, 2012.

 

Democrats in the state Assembly are pushing to institute early voting in New York, but local elections officials say it would be costly and difficult to implement.

“Our democracy thrives when we have as many citizens as possible participating in the electoral process,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, in a December press release.

Silver has introduced legislation to establish early voting in New York, legislation he said will be a priority in the legislative session that opens Wednesday.

Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Westchester County, has introduced companion legislation in the state Senate.

Under the proposed legislation, each county would be required to operate at least five polling places from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, including Saturdays and Sundays, for 14 days before any general election and seven days before a primary or special election.

A total of 32 other states and the District of Columbia already offer early voting, according to Silver’s office.

“The president of the United States himself voted by early voting,” said Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, D-Manhattan, a co-sponsor of the

legislation, in a telephone interview. Because early voting allows people to vote when they have time to do it, more people would be likely to vote, he suggested.

New York, with 46 percent voter turnout statewide, had the third-lowest turnout in the nation in November, according to Silver’s office.

Long lines at the polls in some places discouraged people from voting in November, O’Donnell said.

“We should do everything in our power to encourage access to the ballot box and to get people out to vote,” he said.

New York’s strict election laws, however, make early voting harder to implement than in other states, said Mary Beth Casey, Republican elections commissioner in Warren County.

“It sounds wonderful in theory. But the practicality and logistics of administering something like that is enormous,” she said.

Casey said that because sign-in books used at polling sites are printed a week or two in advance, there would be no way to verify who voted early.

Therefore, it would be difficult to prevent people from voting twice.

Early voting would be expensive for counties, said Leslie Allen, Republican elections commissioner for Washington County.

Counties would have to buy additional voting machines, because there wouldn’t be enough time before Election Day to read out and reset machines used for early voting, she said.

Counties also would have the expense of paying election inspectors, she said.

Election inspectors are paid $10 per hour, and at least four inspectors are required at each polling site, Casey said.

Based on those figures, it would cost $30,800 for a general election, and half that for a primary or special election.

O’Donnell, the Manhattan assemblyman, said he did not have specific answers to the local election

commissioners’ objections, but he is confident they could be addressed.

“I think all those things are resolvable,” he said.

Two local Assemblymen said they oppose the proposed legislation to establish early voting.

“My sentiment is, ‘Election Day is Election Day,’ ” said Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury.

Assemblyman Tony Jordan, R-Jackson, said elections commissioners already have a difficult time finding enough election inspectors to cover all the polling places.

Early voting would make that even more difficult, and would increase the cost, he said.

“That’s where the ever-present mandate problem comes from,” he said.

Jordan said he also is concerned people voting early would be casting their votes before last-minute campaigning.

Often, there are major developments in the final days of close races, he said.

State Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury, said she supports the concept of early voting, but is concerned about the cost for counties.

“Certainly that’s always going to be a concern if you get into a huge cost that you’re putting on the counties,” she said.

Casey, the Warren County elections commissioner, said the goals of early voting could be met by expanding the absentee ballot voting system.

“I think most boards of elections would be open to that instead of early voting,” she said.

In 2009, O’Donnell sponsored legislation to authorize “no-excuse absentee voting” in New York.

The law, which did not pass, would have allowed any registered voter to vote by absentee ballot, not just those who are out of the area, disabled or in jail.

O’Donnell said the legislation did not pass because lawyers forthe Assembly determined it would require a constitutional amendment.

“The lawyers, who know elections law better than me, came to me and said this could create this problem with the constitution,” he said.

Early voting would not require a constitutional amendment, he said.

Little said it would seem that a system involving people casting their ballots early at boards of elections offices, like people cast absentee ballots, might work.

“My daughter lives in Tennessee and, before that, she lived in Florida, and they do vote early, usually a couple of weeks ahead of time that they are allowed,” she said.

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