Empire State Early Voting?

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Election reform usually comes slowly to New York State – if you are looking for innovation, you tend to look elsewhere – but a new proposal by Governor Andrew Cuomo would add the Empire State to the long list of states that permit voters to cast ballots at a polling place before Election Day. The Poughkeepsie Journal has more:

Registered voters in New York wouldn’t have to wait until Election Day to cast their ballot in person if Gov. Andrew Cuomo has his way.

A measure in Cuomo’s $145 billion budget proposal would make New York the 38th state in the country to allow early voting, in which a limited number of polling places are opened ahead of elections, freeing up voters from having to cast their ballot on a specific day.

The suggestion is already dividing supporters, who tout the participation effects, and potential opponents, who worry about the fiscal impact on local government:

Supporters of early voting say states should be doing anything they can to make voting more convenient, particularly in New York, where just 29 percent of voters cast their ballot in 2014, a gubernatorial election year.

“Given New York’s miserable voter-participation rates, anything that can make it easier for people to go to the ballot box are things that should be considered,” said Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

But counties — which administer elections in New York — have their concerns, particularly when it comes to the added cost of opening polling places earlier than usual.

Stephen Acquario, executive director of the state Association of Counties, said the concept of early voting is a good one. But Cuomo’s proposal, he said, should be rejected unless the state agrees to cover’s the counties’ extra costs.

According to Cuomo’s office, the governor’s early-voting plan wouldn’t have a financial impact on counties for the state’s coming fiscal year, which runs from April through March. After that, the cost estimate is uncertain; Acquario said the state has estimated the cost at $3 million a year, though he believes it would be higher.

“Despite principled visions on the issue, on the fiscal nature of the cost shift it’s unconscionable for the state to be shifting and enacting policies these days in the property-tax-cap era,” Acquario said. “It should be dead on arrival.”

What’s remarkable is that the proposal is so modest – at least in terms of the number of sites:

Cuomo’s proposal would require counties to open at least one polling place for the 12 days prior to an election. If passed this year, it would apply to all elections beginning in May 2017.

Counties would have to open one early polling site for every 50,000 residents, up to a maximum of seven. Counties with fewer than 50,000 residents would be required to open a single site, which could be at their existing Board of Elections offices.

That means smaller counties, like Chemung, would need one, while mid-to-larger sized counties would vary greatly. Monroe and Westchester counties, for example, would each need seven early polling places. Broome would need four, while Tompkins would need two and Dutchess five.

In all, there would be 139 early polling sites across the state, according to Cuomo’s office, though voters have to cast their ballot in their own county. For special elections and primaries, county boards of election can vote to reduce the number. [emphasis added]

Interestingly, there are also concerns at the local level about the technology necessary to implement early voting:

Doug Colety, the Republican election commissioner and GOP chairman in Westchester County, said most election commissioners “have an issue” with Cuomo’s proposal. One problem, Colety said, is technological — counties generally use paper poll books to look up registered voters.

“Voters that can’t make it to the poll on Election Day have the option to vote absentee,” he said. “One of the major issues with early voting is having real-time data available to poll workers, and states that have early voting have electronic poll books. We’re not at that point yet.”

Some smaller counties had less concern.

Cindy Emmer, the Democratic election commissioner in Chemung County, said Cuomo’s proposal is doable since it requires Chemung to open only one early polling place.

“Earlier proposals had us having to staff a number of sites, and that would have been really cost prohibitive,” Emmer said. “But this is much more manageable. We certainly understand the need to be accessible for voters who aren’t going to be available on Election Day. So I support the concept, as long as it doesn’t become cost prohibitive.”

Don’t expect this proposal to race through the Legislature and be ready for 2016, though; supporters and opponents alike seem to think it’ll take awhile:

Cuomo’s plan would need to be approved by the state Legislature — either as part of the state’s budget, or separately as a bill.

Assembly Elections Committee chair Michael Cusick, D-Staten Island, said he’s pleased Cuomo included the plan in his budget because it will spark a “substantive conversation on the issue.” The Democrat-led Assembly has passed its own early-voting bills in recent years.

His Senate counterpart sounded a more cautious tone.

“I think all of us across the board want to increase voter participation,” said Senate Elections Committee chair Fred Akshar, R-Colesville, Broome County. “But we need to make sure that we don’t put any unnecessary financial strain on our local governments.”

In some ways, New York’s concern about early voting seems almost quaint given the radical shifts in election procedures in other states … but it is undeniable that even a seemingly-modest approach like this one would represent a huge change for Empire State election officials, who have very real concern about whether they have the technology or the budget to make it work. Still, the fact that New York is discussing the idea, and perhaps even willing to see how it works elsewhere, is a big step forward. New York doesn’t always move quickly but it can move on election reforms – it adopted OVR way back in 2012 while other states are still discussing it – meaning that this story is one worth watching for the foreseeable future.

Stay tuned …

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