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News & Issues February -March 2020


Early voting’s first try

Area counties rank near top, bottom as New York expands its election system



William Van Ness and Beth McLaughlin, the Republican and Democratic elections commissioners for Warren County, demonstrate one of the new electronic poll books used as part of New York’s system for early voting. Photo by Joan K. Lentini


Contributing writer


When November’s general election gave New Yorkers their first-ever chance to cast ballots in advance of Election Day, the share of voters taking advantage of this new right varied widely across the region.

Columbia County posted the highest rate of early voting in the state. More than 16 percent of the voters who cast ballots for the 2019 election opted to do so at one of the county’s new early voting sites.

But in Washington County, just 2.9 percent of voters who participated in the 2019 election, or 290 people, did so by voting early. That gave the county one of the lowest rates of early voting in the state.

Saratoga, Warren and Rensselaer counties were somewhere in between, with early voters accounting for 6.8 percent, 6.2 percent and 4.9 percent, respectively, of the ballots cast in November. All of these rates were below the statewide early voting rate of 8.3 percent.
The wide variation partly reflects the differing approaches each county’s leaders took in deciding how many early voting sites to set up and where to put them.

Under the state law enacted last year to provide for early voting, the Legislature required each county to provide at least one early voting site for every 50,000 registered voters. Columbia County established three sites – or three times the number required for its 47,000 voters. Other area counties provided the minimum number required: three sites in Saratoga County, two in Rensselaer County and one each in Washington and Warren counties.

The new law left it to counties to decide where to set up polling places for early voting, as long as the sites met certain security and accessibility requirements. But that proved controversial in Rensselaer County, where officials established polling locations in the suburban towns of Brunswick and Schodack while rejecting calls to put one in the county’s most populous community, the city of Troy. Because of that dispute, state legislators are considering a proposal to revise the early voting law.


Warren County elections officials demonstrate one of the county’s new electronic poll books. Voters use the device to sign in before casting ballots at the county’s early voting site. Joan K. Lentini photo

Warren County elections officials demonstrate one of the county’s new electronic poll books. Voters use the device to sign in before casting ballots at the county’s early voting site. Joan K. Lentini photo

Boosting voter participation
The advent of early voting in New York is among several election-related reforms the state Legislature passed at the beginning of last year, after Democrats won a substantial majority in the state Senate for the first time in decades. Many of the party’s candidates had pledged during the 2018 campaign to reform the state’s election system to make it easier to vote.

New York has long ranked near the bottom among the 50 states for voter participation, but some critics have questioned whether early voting will really do much to boost overall turnout – and at what cost.

Supporters, however, say that in elections where turnout is expected to be high, such as this fall’s presidential election, early voting will decrease congestion at the polls and relieve Election Day pressure on staff and equipment.

In the 2019 general election, in which mainly county and municipal positions were at stake, more than 256,000 people across New York cast ballots ahead of Election Day as the state became the 38th to allow early voting. Polling places for early voting were open from Oct. 26 through Nov. 3; Election Day was Nov. 5.

The statewide early voting rate of 8.3 percent was well below the share of voters who typically vote early in Massachusetts and Vermont, but the difference at least partly reflects differences in how elections are operated in New York and the two neighboring states.

Because elections in New York are administered at the county level, the new early voting system relies on centralized polling places designated by county elections boards.

In Massachusetts and Vermont, elections are administered at the municipal level, so voters are able to cast ballots at local government offices in their own towns. In Massachusetts, which debuted its early voting system in the 2016 presidential election, more than 20 percent of the ballots cast in both 2016 and 2018 elections were from early voters. Massachusetts also has a 12-day early voting period, compared with a nine-day period in New York.

And in Vermont, the share of voters casting ballots early often tops 30 percent. Vermont’s voters can obtain ballots as soon as they’re printed – in statewide elections, 45 days in advance – and submit them at their town office or by mail.

Vermont also makes no distinction between early and absentee voting, whereas New York still requires absentee voters to attest that they will be unable to vote on Election Day. Allowing no-excuse absentee voting in New York would require an amendment to the state Constitution, and the Legislature took the first step in that process last year.


Electronic poll books
In New York, state funds to pay for the new early voting program were released in late August. Boards of elections in each county then had to designate early voting locations, select and purchase new equipment, have the equipment programmed and learn how to set it up, and train poll workers before early voting started on Oct. 26.

“We were very, very tense about it,” said Roger Schiera, the Republican elections commissioner for Saratoga County.

But despite officials’ nervousness about the inaugural run, the process went smoothly, he said.
“It all went very well,” Schiera said. “The voters liked it.”

Officials in most other area counties also reported that the process of casting and tabulating ballots went well.

But in Columbia County, election workers wound up having to count hundreds of ballots by hand because of a problem with a printer at one of the early voting sites. That led to a long delay in the reporting of election results – and a shakeup at the county Board of Elections.

The process of early voting in New York relies on new technology – in the form of an electronic poll book -- to ensure that voters don’t receive more than one ballot.

At traditional Election Day polling places, voters sign in using paper ledger books listing all the voters in their election district, and poll workers hand them the appropriate ballot.

Early voters, in contrast, signed in using the new electronic poll books, which are about the size of an iPad, and are able to access the registration information of all of a county’s voters. The use of electronic poll books made it possible for voters to show up at any early voting site in their county, while Election Day voters still could vote only at their assigned polling place.

The electronic poll book for early voters was connected to an on-demand printer that could immediately produce the correct ballot for each voter who showed up.

“We had a lot of trepidation about that, but it went very well,” Schiera said.
Once a ballot was issued, the procedure went like any election: The voter marked the ballot and fed it into an optical scanner for tabulation. Election workers opened the scanners and read the tallies after the polls closed on Election Day.

New York’s new law mandates a nine-day early voting period before presidential primaries, state and federal primaries, and general elections. The period must include two full weekends, ending on the Sunday before the Tuesday election.

In 2018, when early voting was still under debate, Schiera and other skeptics worried that early voting could be exploited by people who wanted to vote early and often. On the first day of early voting, Schiera ran his own test. He voted at one site, then went to each of Saratoga County’s other two sites and tried to sign in again. He was denied each time.

“It worked just as it was supposed to,” Schiera said.
He explained that the electronic poll books upload each voter’s data to a remote computer server, where it’s accessible to the other poll books.

“Part of the reason for electronic poll books was to prevent people from voting more than once,” he said.


A glitch in Columbia County
Columbia County had designated three polling places for early voting: at the county elections office in Hudson and at municipal buildings in Valatie and Copake. The county had competitive races for district attorney and for supervisor seats in six towns as well as numerous town council and other local positions.

Things started to go wrong even before the polls opened. Because of a flea infestation at the county Board of Elections office in Hudson, that early voting site had to be moved to a different part of the building.

In addition, county Board of Supervisors Chairman Matt Murell, R-Stockport, said one of the ballot printers for early voting apparently was jostled during transport and printed its ballots askew. When polls closed on Election Day, inspectors discovered that 700 misaligned ballots hadn’t been read by the scanners and would have to be counted by hand.

Because the early voting sites served voters from multiple towns, the glitch delayed vote counting for local races across the county for several days. Final tallies from early voting weren’t released until Dec. 3.

The goal of having three sites was to make voting as accessible as possible, but “there may have been some overreach,” Murell said.

Looking ahead to the 2020 election cycle, supervisors decided to make the election commissioners’ jobs full time. Republican Commissioner Jason Nastke, who already had a full-time job, has resigned, while Virginia Martin, the Democratic commissioner, was not reappointed and will be replaced this month.

“We’ll have new leadership on both the Republican and Democratic sides,” Murell said.
Leaving urban voters out?

Rensselaer County set up two early voting sites, at the town offices in Brunswick and Schodack, but the Republican-controlled County Legislature refused a series of requests from Troy city officials and voting rights activists to create a polling place for early voters in Troy.
Edward McDonough, the county’s Democratic elections commissioner, defended the two sites chosen by the bipartisan Board of Elections.

“The two locations divided the county and made it easily accessible for as many people as possible,” McDonough said.

Voters averaged 170 per day over the nine days, and lines were never longer than two or three people, he said.

Critics said the two early voting sites were difficult or impossible to reach by public transportation, making them inaccessible to some residents of Troy. The city, they pointed out, has a disproportionate number of low-income, minority and college student voters – all groups that are more likely to face challenges getting to the polls on Election Day.

Jason Schofield, the county’s Republican elections commissioner, said the issue of accessibility for Troy voters was brought up mostly by advocates and not by voters themselves.
Schofield said the Brunswick and Schodack locations were chosen in part because they were available for the entire nine-day period of early voting, were handicapped-accessible, and had plenty of parking. The county office building in Troy didn’t meet those criteria, and other potential sites in Troy weren’t readily available, he added.

To address concerns about accessibility in Troy, state Sen. Neil Breslin, D-Bethlehem, and Assemblyman John T. MacDonald III, D-Cohoes, whose districts include Troy, introduced legislation requiring each county to provide an early voting site in its most populous community. The Senate bill has passed its version of the bill, and the Assembly version is in committee.
In anticipation of the legislation passing, “we’ve locked down a site in Troy, so we’ll have three sites” for future elections, McDonough said.

A county’s most populous town, however, isn’t necessarily the one with the highest percentage of people without cars. In Saratoga and Warren counties, for example, the densely settled cities of Saratoga Springs and Glen Falls are not as populous as the suburban towns of Clifton Park and Queensbury.

And in Washington County, the requirement for an early voting site in the most populous community would mean putting one in the town of Kingsbury, which is only a short distance from the current site at the county office complex in Fort Edward.


Inaugural run
Saratoga County’s three early voting sites were the county Board of Elections office in Ballston Spa, the Clifton Park-Halfmoon library, and the community center at Gavin Park in Wilton.
“We’re mostly a driving population here,” Schiera said. “We had no complaints about people unable to get to the polls.”

He also said voters who couldn’t get to the early voting sites still had other options: Absentee ballots are available for those who qualify, and the county has 104 polling places on Election Day, when parties and candidates sometimes arrange to provide rides to voters who need them.
Schiera said he was pleased that even though the county had a short time in which to set up an early voting system, “there were no disasters” in implementing the system. He said he was particularly happy with the electronic poll books the county purchased; their graphic user interface was clear and similar to what merchants use for credit card purchases, so people were familiar with it, he said.

Warren County had just one site, at the county Board of Elections office in Queensbury, where 863 people cast early ballots.

“We were surprised at the numbers,” said Beth McLaughlin, the county’s Democratic elections commissioner. “We expected 500 and thought it would be mostly absentee balloters.”
But the number of absentee ballots “stayed constant,” said William Van Ness, her Republican counterpart.

The site was right off the Northway and convenient for many voters, McLaughlin said.
Washington County’s lone site for early voting was the Board of Elections office at the county office complex in Fort Edward.

“People were very happy to be able to come and vote,” said Jeff Curtis, the county’s Democratic elections commissioner.

Washington County, however, had one of the lowest rates in the state for participation in early voting: Just 290 voters, or 0.79 percent of the county’s 36,580 registered voters, cast early ballots. Only Wayne, Steuben and Herkimer counties had lower participation rates.


Widely varying costs
Although early voting makes it easier for more people to participate in elections, the costs for equipment, staff and training for poll workers can add up quickly in New York’s system, especially in counties with multiple early voting sites. That has been a point of contention for some county officials in the region.

Murell estimated Columbia County spent about $100,000 to operate its three early voting sites. Even with a high rate of participation, that works out to nearly $30 for every early vote cast in the county. (The county plans to operate only one early voting site, in Hudson, for the April 28 Democratic presidential primary.)

But some of the costs in 2019 were for equipment that can be reused in future elections, and the cost per voter will naturally go down in high-turnout elections such as this fall’s presidential vote.
The 2020 state budget estimated a cost of $15,000 per early voting site. It allocated $10 million in grants to counties for early voting operations and $14.7 million for equipment and software.
In interviews two years ago about the prospect of early voting, Schiera was among the local election officials who objected to the cost of the new equipment and extra sites and staffing during early voting periods. He estimated last month that early voting cost $15 to $20 per voter in Saratoga County, or roughly $45,000 to $60,000, while McDonough estimated Rensselaer County’s cost was a little over $20,000, or about $10 for every early vote cast in 2019.
By comparison, Massachusetts calculated the cost of its early voting program in 2016 at $1 million statewide, or about $1 per early voter.

Warren County invested about $88,000 for the first year of its early voting program, but “the only cost going forward will be the annual license fee and staff,” McLaughlin said.
Curtis said Washington County’s costs were “very minimal,” because the county Board of Elections already had voting machines on site and its office staff was available to help poll workers.

Jennifer Wilson, the program and policy director for the League of Women Voters of New York State, said the governor’s office has proposed $15 million in the upcoming state budget to help pay for more electronic poll books.

“We need another investment in localities,” she said. “The counties will receive less state aid overall because of the Medicaid cuts. We never wanted this to be an unfunded mandate on the counties.”

The League of Women Voters has recommended $45 million in new state funding for the 2020 election cycle: $20 million for operations during the two primaries and $24 million for more electronic poll books, so that all polling sites will have them.
Costs aside, local election officials said voters liked the flexibility of being to cast ballots ahead of Election Day.

“It wasn’t without hiccups,” said Virginia Martin, the Democratic elections commissioner in Columbia County. “But overall it was a big success. The voters loved it.”
And Schofield said that for voters, early voting has only one drawback.
“Once you’ve voted,” he said, “you can’t change your mind.”