By Nick Babel
The Tompkins County Legislature, responding to provisions in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state budget, has approved a resolution supporting early voting in New York State.
The member-filed resolution advanced by Dan Klein notes that early voting makes it easier for residents to cast ballots, and that 37 states have already adopted the practice. The measure, however, notes that having counties provide early voting sites for up to 12 days prior to all special, primary and general elections, as contained in the proposed budget, may cost local governments statewide $3 million to $4 million. It requires that the state reimburse counties for the added cost of this new mandate, should early voting, as proposed, be enacted.
“I support early voting simply because it makes it easier and more convenient to vote. Personally, I am a vote-aholic. I would vote for dog catcher if we were able to,” Klein says. “But for many people voting is not a priority. The U.S. Census recently asked non-voters why they don’t vote. “Too busy” was the most common answer. Early voting reduces the impact of being “too busy”. I made this case to the county legislature, so I assume they agreed with my reasoning.”
The measure was approved by the legislature on Feb. 16 by a vote of 9-3 (Dave McKenna, Glenn Morey and Dooley Kiefer voting no; Mike Sigler and Leslyn McBean-Clairborne excused). The consensus among legislators who support this action is that voting is an inclusive process.
“I’ve long been bothered that we don’t make voting easier in New York State. The majority, 37 other states, have some form of early voting. So when the governor proposed a workable plan this year, I felt it was important to support it,” legislator Martha Robertson says. “Elections are crucial and we’d be better off if turnout were higher. I hope this is just the first reform that makes voting easier for everyone.”
Some lawmakers contend that the early voting process is not cost effect for Tompkins County. “Early voting is too expensive. There would only be one place opened to early vote, and that most likely would be at the Board of Elections, which is only convenient for Ithaca residents,” Morey says. “Regulations require one voting place for every 100,000 voters, and Tompkins County has 50,000 registered voters. I might have the specific numbers wrong but we would have to have only one place open to early vote. I didn’t see this as improving the voting cycle.”
Morey suggests a less costly alternative for the county.“We should change the regulation for absentee ballots. This would allow you to be able to vote early and up to elections day. Very cost-effective,” he says.
Early voting will cost Tompkins County an estimated $16,000 to $32,000 a year. This is based on spending some $8,000 per election. There are two to four elections each year to which this would apply, plus an unknown number of special elections in any year. The law would apply to all general, primary, and special elections. It does not apply to village elections and schooldDistrict elections. Special Elections are those held to fill a seat vacated before the term is completed. So some years there are no special elections. Last year there were at least three. There is no way to know ahead of time how many special elections there will be, so there is no way to estimate that cost, officials say.
“However, the number of registered voters in Tompkins County is approximately 49,500. When we reach 50,000, we would then be required to have two early voting sites. Having a second site would more than double the cost,” Klein says. “The first site would probably be the Board of Elections office itself. For the second site, we would probably have to pay rent. Plus there would be transportation costs. It’s important to emphasize that these cost estimates are only preliminary. We don’t have all the information yet, and we’re not going to establish a detailed budget for a law that has yet to pass.”
McKenna proposed an amendment urging the state to both enact and fund early voting, which failed to win support by a vote of 6-7. Robertson noted that, since the state does not support other local election expenses, it would have to establish a new bureaucracy to fund early voting.
Kiefer proposed an amendment adding language to also support the alternative of no-excuse absentee ballots, as some states do. That proposed amendment failed by a 2-10 margin.
“I like the idea of no-excuse absentee voting. However, I voted against adding that to the resolution because there is no proposal at the state level to establish that policy. There are many things I would like New York State to do, but if there is no chance of them happening, I don’t know that it is a good use of our time to ask the State to do them. The resolution we passed was encouraging New York State to do something they are already considering.”
If enacted as part of the budget state budget, early voting would not be implemented until 2017. It would not apply for village or school district elections.
By Nick Babel