New York has had a well-deserved reputation as a state with laws that discourage voter participation. In the area of redistricting, elected officials have long conspired to deny voters competitive elections. In the area of campaign finance, loopholes in the law make it possible for wealthy and powerful interests to shower candidates with contributions of unlimited amounts. In the area of ethics, enforcement is controlled by the state’s elected leadership. In the area of voting, state policies have created obstacles to registering to vote and casting a ballot.
And the results have been clear. In 2018, at least one million otherwise eligible voters were not registered, often due to laws that have made it hard to register. In the 2018 general election, a stunningly low percentage of registered New Yorkers – 45.2 percent –voted. A review of the U.S. Elections Project analysis showed New York to be among the ten worst turnout rates in the nation.
Thankfully, this is one area in which the governor and the Legislature have begun to act. This year a package of legislation was passed that could ultimately make New York one of the nation’s model in how to encourage voter participation.
One of the new laws that has gone into effect allows eligible voters to cast their ballots early instead of waiting until Election day. New York joins 38 states (including 3 that mail ballots to all voters) and the District of Columbia, that allow any qualified voter to cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to Election Day. No excuse or justification is required.
In our modern age, allowing flexibility in voting makes perfect sense. Since Election Day is a Tuesday in November, it can be difficult for many New Yorkers to juggle personal and employment demands and still get to the polls. Allowing voters to cast their ballots early is simply a recognition that the constitutional guarantee to vote should be made as easy as possible.
Which is why the vast majority of states allow it and why New York acted.
This is the first election in which early voting will occur in New York. Under the new law, early voting begins Saturday, October 26th and runs until Sunday November 3rd. New Yorkers can still vote on Election Day, November 5th as they always have.
Where you live will determine where you go to vote. The state law mandates counties to have at least one early voting site for every 50,000 registered voters. The law requires that each site be open for a certain number of hours, not necessarily all day for each of the locations. However, a minimum of 60 hours must be made available.
Given the populations, for 40 of New York's 62 counties only one early voting site is required. There are slightly larger counties, especially in upstate, that must have a minimum of two of three sites. The larger counties, such as Albany, are subject to a higher floor.
In Albany, there are eight locations spread throughout the county, including the county board of elections location in the city of Albany. In other counties, similar situations exist, depending on the population. There are a total of more than 200 early voting sites sprinkled across the state.
Granting eligible New Yorkers the early voting option makes sense. It offers a more convenient option for busy people and may help improve the state’s overall voting performance.
There are logistics that still need to be ironed out, and having the 2019 elections be the first one covered by the mandate makes sense. Given that 2019 is largely an election for local governmental offices, it should help elections officials prepare for the big votes for President next year.
But early voting is only one step that is needed. As part of the elections reform package approved this legislative session, one initiative amended the state constitution to allow new voters the opportunity to register and vote on Election Day. The states that allow that option have among the highest voter participation rates nationwide.
Even more needs to be done to clean up and overhaul New York’s woeful democracy. Campaign financing reforms may still occur, but changes are needed for redistricting which gets triggered by next year’s Census as well as proposals to make the state’s ethics laws enforcement independent of those it regulates.
Democracy is a work in progress, a constant march toward to government accountability and enhanced representation. Early voting constitutes a step – and significant one – in that march. If you want to vote early, check out your local county board of elections for locations most convenient to you.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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