By: Christoper Hennessy
This most recent election cycle saw voters in New York State trying out early voting for the first time. The legislation passed in January, among other bills designed to expand and modernize New York’s election laws. This brings the state in line with the other thirty-eight states to already have early voting as part of their election laws. Governor Andrew Cuomo praised the effort to pass the legislation. As he signed the bill into law, he noted that “At a time when the federal government is doing everything it can to disenfranchise voters, we are taking action to make it easier for New Yorkers to participate in the democratic process . . . .”
The proposal seems to make elections easier, but how does it actually work? Polling sites for early voting opened on Saturday, October 26, and closed Sunday, November 3. Counties were able to choose where these polling sites were, the only requirement being one site per 50,000 people. The legislation required polls to be open during weekdays, weekends, and on holidays. On weekends and holidays, the polls needed to stay open for five hours between 9:00 AM and 6:00 PM. On weekdays, polling sites were required to remain open for eight hours between 7:00 AM and 8:00 PM. At least one of the polling sites needed to remain open until 8:00 PM on two weeknights.
Just before the early polls opened, Governor Cuomo summarized the intent for the bill: “Too many generations of New Yorkers have been discouraged from exercising their right to vote, and this year we enacted a series of new measures to fix that and help bring our voting laws into the 21st century.” This hopeful mentality might have drove the bill’s passage, but concerns still existed. Local election officials worried about the relatively short time they had to prepare for the early elections. New technology needed to be purchased, officials trained, and sites set up. One member of the New York City Board of Elections went so far as to say that “Early voting is a work in progress.” As much excitement surrounds this process, one election official from Buffalo might have summed up localities feelings over the process quite succinctly: “The state kind of dumped this on us.”
With the seemingly last minute scrambling to get the process implemented, how well did New Yorkers respond to early voting? All things being equal, it seemed to have functioned, but that is about it. Some voters appeared to enjoy the convenience. Laurie Abajian, a voter from the Capital region, appeared to enjoy her ability to hop over to her local polling station and vote during the lunch hour. However, numbers across the state appeared to be low. Just two-percent of registered voters in New York took advantage of the opportunity to vote early. Whether the low early voter turnout was a result of an off election year, the fact that this was the first year of early voting, or some other factor remains to be seen. However, few people in New York appeared to be encouraged to “exercise their right to vote.”
Overall, the system certainly appears to be more convenient for voters who may not traditionally be able to vote on Election Day. However this early test of the system does not really point to any definitive results of whether the system is working as intended. Low turnout may have frustrated any attempts at making this a true test run of the system. Next year’s presidential election, which already is contentious regardless of who wins the Democratic ticket, may be more of a true test to watch out for and see if the system holds up to its promises.