HUDSON—Governor Andrew Cuomo has signed new voting reforms into law, but exactly how they will play out in practice still remains to be seen.
Democratic Election Commissioner with the Columbia County Board of Elections Virginia S. Martin told The Columbia Paper this week that she expects new election laws will kick in with this year’s election season. Though she has not yet had a chance to confer with Board of Elections (BOE) staff and her fellow commissioner about the particulars, she agreed to speak about the changes “in broad strokes.”
With regard to early voting, which is just one aspect of the new reforms, Ms. Martin said New York State counties with 50,000 or fewer registered voters (Columbia County has 44,000), will be required to have one poll site open for early voting, beginning 10 days before and closing 2 days before Election Day to accommodate 8 days of early voting.
This year that period will begin Saturday, October 26 and end Sunday, November 3, which is 2 days before Election Day Tuesday, November 5.
In Columbia County, that poll site will likely be somewhere within the county office building at 401 State Street, in the same building the BOE is located, but exactly where the space will be has not yet been determined.
The poll site will have to open 8-hours per day on weekdays (for 1 full week), which will mean 10-hour days for election workers (1-hour of prep work before opening and 1-hour of wrapping-up work after closing), Ms. Martin said.
The poll site will also be open for two weekends (four days) for five hours/day plus the one hour before and one hour after for staff work. Election inspectors (two Republicans and two Democrats) will have to be hired to cover all these open hours, which will be costly, she said, noting that whenever election inspectors are at work, bipartisan staff must also be on duty at the BOE office to provide backup for both technical and voter registration issues.
Also, all sensitive election materials, such as poll books, ballots and machines, must be placed in secure custody each night and brought back in the morning.
She explained that sensitive materials must be kept under bipartisan lock and key to assure the integrity of the election process. Ms. Martin, who has been an election commissioner for the past 10 years, said that is required by election law.
Logistics, staffing and security are all challenges presented by the new reform and are some reasons change has not been favored.
Whether it will be difficult to find inspectors to cover all the early voting hours is unknown, said Ms. Martin, noting she is more concerned about the BOE staff, which will have to work 18 days without a break—Monday, October 21 through November 8. Hopefully, she and Republican Commissioner Jason J. Nastke (who make up the BOE), will be able to find a way to vary the staff, she said.
Staff at the BOE consists of 3.5 full-time employees of each party: deputy commissioners, election specialists, machine specialists; plus two part-time election assistants and the two commissioners.
Ms. Martin said she and Commissioner Nastke have discussed and do not understand the real goal of early voting.
A governor’s press release says, “Enacting early voting will make voting more convenient for voters whose professional or family obligations make it difficult to physically get to the polls, as well as reduce waiting times and ease logistical burdens for poll workers.”
While it’s supposed to make voting easier and increase turnout, Ms. Martin said she has not found any data that supports that. She said sometimes early voting even decreases voter turnout, but mostly it just spreads out the same number of voters over a 10-day period. “It’s resource intensive and work expensive” without a clear benefit, she said.
Early voting will also complicate how poll books are produced, said Ms. Martin. Poll books sent to the poll sites on election day must reflect which voters have already voted. Vendors of electronic poll books will likely benefit, she said, but such poll books are not used in Columbia County and have been known to introduce their own problems.
Another challenge will involve programming the voting machine at the early voting poll site to accept all 50 different ballots from the county’s 50 election districts. But, she said, there are always issues when phasing in something new.
Another aspect of voting is a reform that “closes the LLC loophole by limiting political spending by a limited liability company (LLC) to a total of $5,000 annually, which is the same limit corporations face. The bill will also require the disclosure of direct and indirect membership interests in the LLC making a contribution, and for the contribution to be attributed to that individual,” says the governor’s release.
Ms. Martin said the loophole closure is “a very good thing,” as is the universal transfer of registration. Previously when New Yorkers moved to a different county, their voter registration did not move with them, requiring voters to re-register with their new local board of elections as if he or she were registering for this first time. This will ensure that when a voter moves elsewhere in the state, his or her voter registration will seamlessly go with them. Many voters who moved became disenfranchised by having to re-register, she said.
Still another part of the new law allows 16 and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote, meaning that a voter will automatically be registered on his or her 18th birthday. Ms. Martin noted that the BOE has been pre-registering 17-year-olds to vote all along.
Not yet enacted in the new voting law is a section on a change in absentee voting, which would allow absentee voting with “no excuse.” Currently, voters who seek an absentee ballot most frequently use the excuse that they may not be in the county during the times the polls are open, said Ms. Martin. Voters can apply and get an absentee ballot by mail up to the week before the vote or go to the BOE and vote by absentee ballot up to the day before the election. In the November 2018 election more than 4,100 absentee ballots were mailed out. Of those, more than 3,600 were returned and counted. “It is possible that early voting may cut down on absentee voting,” she noted.
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