CAPITAL REGION – The state Legislature has listened to the complaints of those who said it approved early voting this year without providing money for counties to implement it.
But whether it is providing enough money to cover the costs that the 57 counties outside New York City will be incurring remains an open question.
The budget includes $14.7 million for creating electronic poll books, which are part of protecting the integrity of the system when people are allowed to cast their Election Day ballots up to nine days early.
There is also $10 million allotted to cover costs for the counties that will actually have to operate the early voting sites, though it isn’t yet clear how that money will be distributed among the counties.
The early voting law the state Legislature approved in January didn’t provide any money for the effort, and and funding wasn’t in earlier versions of the executive budget issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration.
While early voting won’t be in effect for the June 25 primary elections this year, it will be in effect for the general election in November, with voting allowed as early as Oct. 26. The nine-day period includes a requirement that polling places be open daily, including on weekends.
Other changes to voting law that have received little public attention to date include legislation allowing New Yorkers to have up to three hours of paid time off to vote on Election Day, allowing online voter registration, and expanding upstate Primary Day voting hours.
Previously, the primary polls north of Dutchess and Orange counties have only been open from noon to 9 p.m. However, the new legislation will require those polling places to open at 6 a.m. — the same hours as at downstate polling places, and the same hours as on Election Day. In the future, that will mean higher costs for upstate counties overseeing primary elections. That law will take effect on April 1, 2020.
How the expansions of voting access will work on the ground is unclear. County Boards of Election, which were busy with a deadline for the filing of candidate nominating petitions last week, are themselves waiting for guidance.
“The way I understand it, the Legislature left it to the state Board of Elections the rules and regulations for how that money is to be disbursed,” said William Fruci, the Democratic elections commissioner in Saratoga County.
Saratoga County has an estimate that creating electronic polling books for all 196 election districts in the county will cost about $670,000, Fruci said.
Based on its more than 160,000 registered voters, Saratoga County is expected to need three early voting locations. Fruci said while the county is working to have sites established in Clifton Park, Ballston Spa and Wilton, nothing has been finalized. The first election with early voting will be the November general election, he noted — but going into 2020 the state is mandating early voting for all elections, including primaries.
Montgomery County, with about 28,000 registered votes, expects to be able to operate with a single early-voting location in the lobby of the Board of Elections building in Fonda.
“We generally know what we have to do, we just don’t know who will pay for it,” said Terry Bieniek, Montgomery County’s Democratic commissioner.
Early voting will come with additional staffing costs, he said, plus the county plans to rent a temporary portable handicapped ramp to make getting into the building easier. Developing electronic poll books for the county would cost between $100,000 and $150,000, but Bieniek said the county may not need to create them this year.
“I don’t even know if we will do the electronic polling books this year. We might just get through this year and look toward the electronic poll books next year,” Bieniek said. “I think we’re focusing on getting through it and then analyzing how we did if there were any problems.”
Schenectady County election officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The state Board of Elections is developing draft regulations for early voting, but nothing is public yet, said board spokesman John Conklin.
He said the $14.7 million allocation will be distributed to counties based on their number of registered voters, and will cover not just creating electronic poll books, but the purchase of printers and cybersecurity software as well. The Board of Elections is awaiting more information from the state Office of the Budget on how to distribute the $10 million, he said.
In approving an early voting law in January, the Assembly and newly Democrat-controlled state Senate gave voting advocates a victory they had long-sought as part of efforts to increase voter turnout, by making it easier and more convenient to cast a ballot.
The League of Women Voters of New York State said it was pleased to see the election funding included in the budget.
“These funds will be critical to help early voting get off to a good start in New York State,” the league said in a statement released after the budget was adopted early last Monday morning. “In addition to the benefits of this funding, voting will be more accessible for New Yorkers with expanded primary voting hours in upstate from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., more time off for workers on election day, and enhanced ability to register to vote online through the state Board of Elections website. These reforms are hallmarks of progress in finally establishing a 21st century voting system for New York State.”
The state has about 12.7 million registered voters. About 48 percent turned out for the 2018 general election.