Early Voting in New York Finishes Its First Run

Posted by NYPIRG on November 4, 2019 at 8:39 am

One of the big changes in how New York runs its elections is a measure to allow “early voting.”  Early voting allows for people to cast their ballots in advance of Election Day.  And early voting has been tested across the nation.

When New York acted it became the 39th jurisdiction to do so.  Thus, the overwhelming number of states had already made the change.  It has long been clear that early voting is the type of convenience that is popular and necessary. 

From Saturday October 26th through this past Sunday, New Yorkers could vote in advance of Election Day, Tuesday, November 5th.  And while the final numbers are not yet in, it looks like over 250,000 voters showed up at nearly 250 early voting polling sites across the state and that the glitches were kept to a minimum. 

There are some issues that need to be addressed before the next votes are cast.  Under the recently passed law, local boards of elections were given discretion in how many early voting sites that would be required and where they would be located.

First, the new law stated that each county should provide at least one early voting polling place per 50,000 registered voters.  Seems simple enough.  For those counties with voting populations less than 50,000, they had to have at least one early polling place. 

However, the early voting law has one big loophole: counties with large numbers of voters are not be required to keep to the 50,000 voters per early voting polling site ratio.  The law states that in no case shall a county be required to have more than seven sites, no matter how large the population.  Thus, the largest counties have a lot of room in terms of the number of early voting locations. 

Sixteen counties had a ratio greater than one early voting location per 50,000 voters.  Some large counties provided many voting sites.  For example, Erie County had 37 early voting sites with a ratio of about 16,000 voters per location.  On the other hand, Manhattan had a ratio of one early voting place for every 100,000 voters – double what was the goal in the law.  Not illegal, but unfair to Manhattan voters as compared to Erie County. 

The law also requires local boards of elections to consider, but does not require, certain factors when deciding where to locate early polling locations.  The law states that factors like “population density, travel time to the polling place, proximity to other early voting poll sites, public transportation routes, commuter traffic patterns” be considered.  Yet, “consideration” is not a mandate.  In the county of Rensselaer, the city of Troy (population is about 50,000) had no early voting locations.

Having New York’s initial experience be during an “off-year” election makes good sense.  Fewer voters show up at the polls and the elections bureaucracy learns from the experience.

But policymakers need to learn too.  Both houses of the Legislature should hold hearings to review the early election experience.

It is clear, however, that the state needs to be more demanding.  New York should require that no county is allowed to ratios of voters to early voting poll of more than 50,000 to one.  And that every local community that relies heavily on mass transportation, or ones that have dense population centers, or rural areas in which distances are far, have reasonable access.

One additional lesson to be learned involves money.  For unknown reasons, the state government didn’t immediately let flow the $10 million earmarked to help counties, slowing down efforts to plan and cover the costs.  The counties should get the resources that they need.

Early voting is a reform that helps voters cast their ballots, a constitutional right.  New York should do all it can to make voting easier.  In the modern world, allowing voters to cast their ballots during the time before election day makes sense and must be continued.

But it must be done in a manner that makes it easier for all voters, not just those in selected areas.  Thus, new standards should be put in place that ensure areas with the most people get the most early voting sites.  And resources must be made available for those areas in which voters must travel long distances.

We live in a representative democracy.  Making the choice about who represents us should be easy and uncomplicated.  Let’s make sure that is the case.