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Counties worry about cost that could come with early voting proposal

Counties worry about cost that could come with early voting proposal

Part of larger Cuomo reform package
Counties worry about cost that could come with early voting proposal
Gov. Andrew Cuomo points to a colleague before delivering his State of the State address Wednesday.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

CAPITOL -- When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last week proposed reforms to make voting easier in New York state, he left something out: The cost, and how the additional expenses of maintaining early-voting sites would be covered.

Cuomo's proposal includes allowing people to vote before Election Day, no-excuse absentee voting, same-day registration and automatic voter registration -- all ideas that would require approval from the Legislature, and in some instances would require amending the state constitution. They are all, however, items that progressives believe would get more people to vote.

"We should make voting easier, not harder," Cuomo said in his annual State of the State address in Albany on Wednesday.

The voting reforms were among a number of proposals that Cuomo put forth to contrast his own progressive positions with what's happening at the federal level, where the most prominent recent voter initiative has been a panel -- disbanded on Thursday -- that was mulling ways to combat voter fraud, a problem that election experts believe is minimal.

But while the state Legislature can change voting laws, election costs are borne by New York's counties, which already have a number of grievances with the state over expenses forced on them by the state without reimbursement -- the costly "unfunded mandates" county leaders often cite.

"I haven't costed it out yet, but it is going to be a massive new unfunded mandate," said Roger Schiera, Saratoga County's Republican elections commissioner. Each county in the state has two commissioners, one from each of the major political parties, who administer the county election system.

The idea has come up before, though it has never been adopted in a state where a Republican-controlled Senate often blocks Democratic initiatives.

Advocates believe early voting would increase voter turnout, because work, school and personal commitments keep some people from voting on Election Day. It could also reduce pressure on polling sites, where in some cases there are long lines on Election Day, they believe.

In 2016, about 67 percent of registered voters turned out for the presidential election -- but that percentage has been trending downward over time. Presidential year turnouts are typically higher than turnouts in other years.

Under Cuomo's proposal, every county in the state would need to have at least one polling place open in the 12 days leading up to Election Day. Counties would need to have one early polling place for each 50,000 residents, with the locations being determined by the county Board of Elections.

The League of Women Voters of New York State acknowledged such proposals come with costs to local government that need to be addressed.

"We continue to push for funding in the state budget for early voting and automatic voter registration, and we hope the governor will finally recognize the importance of this funding," the league said in a prepared statement issued after the State of the State speech.

The annual speech typically sets out a broad vision, with details like funding waiting until the governor's proposed state budget is released. That document is expected later this month.

The cost of allowing early voting has been estimated in the tens of millions of dollars statewide, but the costs would vary widely by county, with high-population counties incurring the highest costs.

"The whole unfunded mandate issue is a major issue, and we do not want to see the counties have to take on these burdens," said Jennifer Wilson, the League of Women Voters' legislative director.

Early voting is allowed in 36 other states. Schiera said he hasn't studied how early voting is managed in those states, but he sees practical problems with maintaining and staffing additional polling sites for nearly two weeks prior to Election Day.

"I don't know where we would find the space. I don't know where you'd find the inspectors. I don't know how you'd police the thing," Schiera said.

The state Election Commissioners Association is expected to discuss the proposals when it meets this week in Albany. Schiera, chairman of the association's legislative committee, said the idea of early voting has been rejected in the past, due to practical issues and cost.

While early voting could be accomplished by a single change in law, some of Cuomo's proposals, like dropping the need to explain an absentee ballot request and allowing same-day registration, would require amending the state constitution -- a cumbersome and multiyear process.

Cuomo's election reform platform also includes requiring disclosure about who funds digital election ads and new cybersecurity measures to protect elections from outside interference.

Reach Daily Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, swilliams@dailygazette.net or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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