hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues May 2018


Proposal sparks debate over early voting in N.Y.

Vermont, Mass. show potential benefits, but some in region are skeptical


Voters in Chatham, N.Y., cast ballots last month in a special election for state Assembly. A proposal by Gov. Cuomo to allow early voting in New York has set off a debate among area officials and legislators. Scott Langley photo


Contributing writer


New York ranks at the low end among states for voter participation -- around 40th or lower, depending on the source – and in the 2016 election, only 57.2 percent of the state’s voting-age adults cast ballots.

Good-government advocates have long argued that one reason for the poor turnout is the state’s rigid election laws. They say a couple of simple reforms -- allowing early voting and no-excuse absentee ballots – have already proven successful in other states and would increase voter participation in New York.

The call for reform lately has been embraced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a variety of area politicians and election officials, but it also has its skeptics.

William Fruci, the Democratic elections commissioner for Saratoga County, said early voting would open up the process for those who find it inconvenient or impossible to go to the polls on Election Day.

“People don’t have 9-to-5 jobs anymore,” Fruci said. “They do shift work and have multiple jobs.”
Going to the polls can be especially challenging for emergency responders, Fruci added.
But opponents say early voting would be expensive, complicated, and increase the risk of security breaches. They also say there’s no real guarantee voter participation would rise.
“Some studies show decreased turnout,” said Virginia Martin, the Democratic elections commissioner for Columbia County.

New York, with 12.4 million voters, is one of 13 states that don’t allow early voting. The other 37 states and the District of Columbia all have varying periods ahead of an election when voters can cast ballots in person.

New York also is among a minority of states that still require voters to have an excuse for using an absentee ballot. To obtain an absentee ballot, a voter must complete an application attesting that she or he will be absent from the county on Election Day or will be unable to go to a polling place because of illness, disability, incarceration, or caregiving responsibilities for a family member who’s ill or disabled.

In contrast, 27 states don’t require any excuse for an absentee ballot. Oregon, Washington and Colorado simply mail ballots to all registered voters.

Changing the rules for absentee ballots in New York would require an amendment to the state constitution, however, while early voting could be enacted by a majority of the Legislature.

Cuomo’s proposal
In states where it’s allowed, early voting is usually done in person at an election official’s office or another designated site. No excuse is needed. Both Vermont and Massachusetts allow voters to obtain and cast ballots in advance of Election Day at local municipal offices, as elections in both states are administered by town and city governments.

In New York, most elections are run by bipartisan boards of elections in each of the state’s 62 counties. School districts and some villages run their own elections.

In January, Cuomo called for instituting early voting, automatic voter registration through the state Department of Motor Vehicles, and Election Day voter registration beginning with the 2019 local elections. The governor proposed including $7 million in the state budget, then under negotiation, to cover the startup cost of these initiatives.

Under Cuomo’s proposal, early voting would start 12 days before an election, and counties would be required to have at least one early polling site for every 50,000 residents. Polls would be open eight hours a day on weekdays and five on weekends.

The governor said early voting would alleviate long lines, allow quicker detection and correction of registration errors, improve voter satisfaction, and give greater access to the ballot for people who don’t qualify for absentee ballots but have trouble getting to the polls on a weekday.
Bills to establish early voting have been introduced in New York’s Assembly and Senate before, including one that was offered in January by state Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury. Little’s bill would have directed county boards of elections to hold 14 days of early voting at their offices before primaries and general elections. It provided no funds, assuming that because the offices would be open for normal business, the cost would be minimal.


Unfunded mandate?
The governor’s proposal would have provided funding to cover the first year of costs for early voting, said Jennifer Wilson, director of program and policy at the League of Women Voters of New York State.

“Otherwise it’s an unfunded mandate, and our counties are stretched so thin,” she added.
Wilson said she believed the state budget office came up with the $7 million figure based on costs in other states, although “there’s no state of comparable size with the same period of early voting.”

Some states provide for much longer periods of early voting, while others provide less than the 12 days proposed by Cuomo, Wilson added.

The $7 million figure works out to $113,000 per county, although the governor specified no mechanism for dividing the money.

The governor’s proposal didn’t survive this year’s budget process, but Wilson said the idea is by no means dead.

The idea of early voting is being pushed by Let NY Vote, a coalition of unions, nonprofits, good government and activist groups that supports other election reforms as well.
“It’s very grassroots,” Wilson said.

Wilson said early voting seems to increase participation by minority, low income, and new voters in states that have tried it, though it doesn’t appear to have much of an effect on the overall rate of voter turnout. However, it can be a big help for people who find they won’t be able to go to the polls after the deadline for an absentee ballot request has passed, or who are caught in a natural disaster such as Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.

“Many people were disenfranchised by the storm,” Wilson said.


High turnout in Mass.
In 2014, Massachusetts lawmakers set a 12-day period of early voting before biennial state elections, which include federal elections, starting in November 2016. Elections in the commonwealth are administered by the secretary of state’s office through town and city clerks and, in some larger cities, election commissions.

“The turnout was high” in 2016, said Debra O’Malley, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts secretary of state’s office. “It’s unclear if early voting had an impact, but more than 1 million people voted early.”

That’s 22 percent of the state’s 4.25 million registered voters.

According to state figures, the percentage of Massachusetts voters taking advantage of early voting in 2016 ranged from virtually none in some towns to a high of 47.4 percent. Town and city clerks were required to make early voting available during their normal business hours and had the option of adding weekend hours.

O’Malley suggested that the percentage of voters casting early ballots depended in part on how many hours a given office was open. Voters could also vote early by mail; most of those people chose an absentee ballot, she said.

Local governments covered the up-front cost of Massachusetts’ early voting system. But under a state law prohibiting unfunded mandates, the state auditor’s office surveyed the state’s 351 municipalities. Costs varied from zero in many smaller towns to the low five figures in a few cities with weekend early-voting hours. The costs were mainly for extra staffing and providing a private place to mark a ballot, O’Malley said.

The total bill came to just over $1 million statewide, or about $1 per early voter, for which the state reimbursed municipalities.


Vermont: ‘A big positive’
William Senning, Vermont’s director of elections, said he didn’t know exactly when the state started allowing early voting.

“It was before my time,” he said.
Vermont’s 472,000 voters can start voting as soon as ballots are available, which is 45 days before primaries and general elections and 20 days prior to municipal votes that use Australian (paper) ballots.

Between 30 percent and 40 percent of Vermont’s voters take advantage of early voting, Senning said. Residents can mark a ballot in person at their town or city clerk’s office or mail one in.
“There’s really pretty much no distinction between absentee and early voting” in Vermont, Senning said.

Senning had to stop and think when asked what early voting costs Vermont.
“It’s mainly mailing costs” for the municipality, he said. “It doesn’t seem to be a burdensome cost.”

The rate of early voting “has been steadily increasing over time as people get used to it,” Senning said. “It speaks to the fact that people like it. We think that the availability here of early voting has been a big positive for our voters.”


Saratoga takes a stand
Although unions and citizens groups are pushing for early voting in New York, some local officials have been decidedly cool to the idea.

In late February, the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors passed a nonbinding resolution opposing Cuomo’s call for early voting and other election reforms – despite strong support for the proposals among citizens who turned out for the board’s meeting.

Richard Schiera, the county’s Republican commissioner of elections, claimed early voting would pose a risk of people possibly voting several times at different locations, and he estimated the change would cost the county $800,000 to $1 million. Schiera also claimed that acquiring electronic polling books, which he said would be necessary to track voters, would cost at least $500,000.

Fruci, his Democratic counterpart, said he didn’t agree with that estimate.
“I don’t know how he came up with those numbers,” Fruci said. Also, electronic poll books are not only not required but haven’t been approved for use by the Legislature, Fruci said.


Better or worse?
Advocates of early voting say it would reduce the strain on election workers, who by the nature of their jobs don’t do them very often and aren’t always ready to deal with unusual situations.

“Early voting is much easier for counties,” Wilson said, explaining that election officials can check the polls every night to ensure people aren’t voting twice. “It’s better than a single day of chaos.”
But Martin, the Columbia County Democratic elections commissioner, disagreed.
“Part of the problem with early voting is staffing,” Martin said. “We would need to find election inspectors. It’s a problem to find them for one day.”

That problem would be magnified with multiple days of voting, she suggested.
Inspectors would have to be at the polls an hour before opening to set up and would have stay after closing, which could make for a very long day.

“We could split shifts, but then you’d need twice as many people,” Martin said.
Like her Republican counterpart in Saratoga County, Martin said she was concerned about security.

“If you have voting in a variety of places, the machines, memory cards, and poll books will be out in the field someplace. They won’t be as secure as they are in the county board of elections office, where they’re under a double lock and key.” (The Democratic and Republican commissioners have one key apiece.)

When a reporter pointed out that in other states, town clerks handle voting, Martin said that possibility hadn’t occurred to her.

Martin cited studies showing that early voting led to either a small, temporary increase in overall voting, no change, or even a decrease.

“People are motivated when you have one important day to vote,” Martin said. “If you make it possible over two weeks, the run-up to that important day is lost. Some studies show that there’s not as much social pressure to vote if it happens over several weeks.”

Early voters tend to be people who would have voted anyway, she added.
Martin said she would like to see automatic voter registration when people turn 18, rather than having registration handled through the motor vehicles offices or other state services.
She said she supports the idea of no-excuse absentee ballots.

“That would require a constitutional amendment,” Martin said. “But we’ve passed a lot of constitutional amendments in the last few years.”

Fruci said he’s confident that whatever changes the state makes to its voting laws, election commissioners will adapt.

“We do what we’re mandated to do,” Fruci said. “We implemented whole new voting procedures under the Help America Vote Act” of 2002.

If his office had to set up satellite polling places for early voting, Fruci said, “we’d have to bring in some of our more experienced elections inspectors to staff them.

“But if it’s passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, we’ll provide it to voters.”