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Some gripe about early voter turnout

Last month, an anemic voter turnout propelled Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul and Republican Congressmember Lee Zeldin to resounding victories over their primary opponents. A win is a win, but last week some county boards of elections were reported to be griping over the cost of early voting. Their argument was that the costs of running the early voting system greatly outweighed the benefits to voters.

Overall primary election results showed that voter turnout declined dramatically – by nearly half – from the 2018 Democratic primary for governor to the one in June. Nearly 1.6 million voters showed up on primary day 2018 in Andrew Cuomo’s 2-to-1 victory over his challenger Cynthia Nixon. In Kathy Hochul’s equally strong performance, only 865,000 of the 6.5 million Democrats voted in the June primary, or 13%. The 2018 results were unusual, the 2022 results were a return to the traditionally low rates of primary turnout.

The turnout in Representative Zeldin’s big win mirrored the paltry Democratic turnout, 447,000 of the 2.8 million Republicans showed up, or 16%.

Media reports on the numbers of voters who showed up at the polls during the early voting period were fractions of the total: Statewide nearly 180,000 people, or about 14 percent of the total number of primary voters, cast their ballots at polling places during early voting in June.

It was the weak early voting – not the overall pathetic – turnout that drew some elections officials’ ire.

Some background on early voting: According the National Conference of State Legislatures, forty-six states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands offer early in-person voting (this includes states with all-mail elections).

The time period for early in-person voting varies from state to state:

  • Early voting periods range in length from three days to 46 days. The average number of early in-person voting days is 23.
  • Early in-person voting may begin as early as 55 days before the election, or as late as the Friday before the election. The average start date for early in-person voting is 30 days before the election.
  • Early voting typically ends just a few days before Election Day.

Some New York local elections officials were challenging the state’s approach given the costs of staffing early voting sites for nine days with so few voters. They have a point, but what are the causes?
There is no doubt that voters prefer to have the early voting option instead of trooping to the polls on one Tuesday – usually a workday.

One notable change from 2018 is that the state primary was in June, not September. Obviously, that change could cause voter confusion. In addition, due to the state’s redistricting fiasco, there is a second primary date – in August – voters could have been confused by that too.

Of course, that problem could have been offset by a rigorous voter education effort by the boards of elections, but that didn’t happen. Why? One reason could be a shortage of funds. Despite approving a record $220 billion state budget in April, lawmakers appear to have shortchanged local boards of elections.

Since 2019, the state has reportedly appropriated $12 million to help county boards of elections pay costs associated with early voting; but that money was used up prior to the June primary, with no new funds added this year. Thus, virtually all of the costs were absorbed by counties.

County officials have a right to complain about the lack of funds, but their situation doesn’t justify new limits on early voting. Yes, there are costs to early voting and general election day voting. And in both cases, New York’s turnout is regrettably far too small.

Instead of griping about the low turnout in early voting, officials should be demanding more of an investment in democracy from the governor and state lawmakers. And how about making it easier for non-affiliated voters to participate too? After all, there are more New Yorkers who are not enrolled in any political party than there are Republicans, yet their tax dollars pay for primaries in which they cannot vote.

How come no local officials are complaining about that?

Yes, there is a lot more work to do to make New York’s democracy a beacon of hope. Pushing to cut back on the right to vote by making it harder is a clear step in the wrong direction.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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