EDITORIAL: Easy voting = more voters

OVERSLEEPING is not an excuse for failing to vote in next Thursday’s primary election. Go ahead, sleep in. The polls don’t open until noon. Show up fashionably late. But please do show up.

Before going any further, yes, the Democratic and minor party primary for statewide and local candidates takes place Thursday, September 13, not the preceding Tuesday, as would usually be the case. The reasons are explained in our Page 1 story on the primaries.

This switch of days is a reminder that nothing in the Constitution or the laws of physics requires that we vote only on Tuesdays. Most states–34 of them–now have some form of early voting. But not New York. Maybe that’s why this state was ranked 41st out of 50 in voter turnout statewide in the 2016 general election. We’re tied with Mississippi.

We did a much better job here in Columbia County, but it’s not always that way. In a special election last spring for a vacant seat in the state Assembly, one town in this county reportedly had a voter turnout of 19.5%.

The problems of low turnout and some solutions designed to fix them are proposed in a report issued in May called “Why Don’t More New Yorkers Vote?” prepared by Democratic state senators who believe that increasing the number of citizens who vote makes democracy stronger. Their project surveyed 930 people in the state.

The most frequent reason given for not voting was “work/school obligations.” State law requires employers to give workers time off to vote, but you have to wonder how many people have jobs they might lose if they get stuck at a busy polling site. Some people admit they forgot to vote or didn’t know the date. Others were sick on an election day. Should they lose their right to vote because they had the flu?

Maybe these folks should have contacted the Board of Elections and requested an absentee ballot. In this state you need an excuse for why you deserve that paper ballot–like you’re going to be out of the county on Election Day. That’s demeaning. You’re a citizen. You want to vote. You have a right to that ballot. As long as you fill it out correctly and return it on time, the reason you want it is nobody’s business but yours.

The study reported that three-quarters of the respondents said “they would be more likely to vote if they could vote by mail in a no-excuse absentee ballot program.”

The state has relaxed the excuse requirement, but it should be eliminated.

The study also found that “79% of respondents said they would be more likely to vote in the election if poll sites were open for multiple days or on one of the days prior to the election as done in an early voting format.” It doesn’t say who would pay for the extra days.

The study doesn’t suggest radical ideas. Massachusetts has early voting and that state also has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the country. Texas has early voting too, as do Arizona, California and 30 other states. And more than half of all states offer “no-excuse” absentee ballots.

One last statistic: the study says that “81% who live in counties with voting hours from 12 – 9 p.m. on primary day said they would be more likely to vote in [a primary] election if voting hours were extended to 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.”

Columbia County taxpayers would have to pay for longer polling place hours, which means another unfunded state mandate. But what if the cost was picked up by the state. The place to start is with a multi-year, state-funded experiment opening every poll site in the state from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. for all statewide elections. Let’s see whether it really does boost primary election turnout.

Early voting and no-excuse absentee ballots can only come from the state legislature and Republicans, who have cobbled together a slim majority in the state Senate, have blocked recent efforts to make it easier for more people to vote.

These measures should be bipartisan, and to the degree that the delays of the GOP are meant to limit voter access, it’s a shameful record. But voting is an acquired habit. The excuse that you didn’t know where or when to vote or have decided not to cast your ballot means you’re not paying attention. And for a democracy, that’s a disease–one that will soon prove fatal.

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