State and local officials in the state of New York are butting heads over Governor Andrew Cuomo’s motion in his January 13 State of the State address to create a 12-day early voting period and establish automatic voter registration for New York state residents. Cuomo, a Democrat, suggests that there be at least one early voting polling place per 50,000 residents in each of New York’s 62 counties (with a total of 139 locations) with the hope of providing access to early voting for eight hours on weekdays and five hours on weekends. Each individual county’s board of elections would have the freedom to determine the location of these polling places under the governor’s proposal. Currently, the polls are open on Election Day in New York state from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
— Dan Clark (@DanClarkReports) January 13, 2016
Cuomo’s motion was met with strong support from organizations such as Common Cause New York, a progressive non-profit political advocacy group, and the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella advocacy organization for other organizations throughout the state that advocate for immigrants, refugees, and asylees.
Susan Lerner, executive director for Common Cause New York, told the press, “Early voting is a proven strategy to improve election administration by making it easy and convenient to cast a vote.”
She also said that her office plans to work closely with the governor’s office to iron out the best possible implementation should the measure pass.
— NYIC (@thenyic) January 15, 2016
The governor’s proposal comes amid concerns that turnout is too low in New York state in all elections, including presidential elections. In December 2015, the New York Times editorial board printed a full-throated endorsement of early voting, automatic voter registration, fewer election dates (New York voters are scheduled to vote in three separate primaries — presidential, congressional, and state/local — on three separate dates before the general election in November), and better ballot design.
In his State of the State address, Cuomo said that New York’s voter turnout was the 44th lowest out of all 50 states in the last presidential election. In addition to his push for early voting, Cuomo also moved to adopt automatic voter registration in the state of New York, requiring government agencies such as Medicaid and the Department of Motor Vehicles to automatically register applicants to vote following the implementation of similar policies in Oregon and California. Applicants would be able to opt out of voter registration under the Cuomo proposal.
New York is beginning to look at doing Oregon-style automatic voter registration https://t.co/mf25Uu8qrk
— Bryan Whitaker (@whitakerb2) January 15, 2016
The support for and opposition to the New York governor’s plan seems to have broken across party lines. This is unsurprising since conventional wisdom dictates that increased voter turnout benefits Democrats (although this claim does have its flaws). However, Assemblyman Karl Brabenec (R-Deerpark) cited cost as a concern and claimed that early voting periods have not proved to increase voter turnout. The Republican Board of Elections Commissioner for Ulster County, Tom Turco, took a bolder stance, telling the Times Herald Record that he doesn’t believe it is the responsibility of government to increase voter turnout.
“It’s not the cure-all that certain politicians think it is. For any effect it would have, I don’t think it’s worth the cost.”
Onondaga County’s two elections commissioners have also taken opposite sides.
Democratic Elections Commissioner Dustin Czarny piled on the praise, saying, “New York is behind the times on this. While cost is always a concern, so is the convenience of the voters and making our elections more accessible.”
He reiterated Governor Cuomo’s concern that New York is “one of the worst” states when it comes to voter turnout. Despite Czarny’s insistence that the step forward for New York would be worth the cost, Onondaga County Republican Elections Commissioner Helen Kiggins Walsh staunchly opposes the measure on that basis, estimating a six-figure cost for the county. However, she did suggest an alternative: amending New York’s state constitution and allowing for excuse-free absentee ballots. Under the current system, New York state residents must cite a reason to obtain an absentee ballot — work, school, vacation, or illness.
This partisan breakdown will be especially significant when it comes time to vote on Governor Cuomo’s measure, as Albany is currently cut in half — the Assembly is controlled by Democrats, the State Senate by Republicans.