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No state money for early voting in budget

No state money for early voting in budget

Counties say any new mandate 'not fair'
No state money for early voting in budget
City residents vote at the Schenectady High School gymnasium in 2013.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed reforms to make voting easier in New York state, including allowing early voting before Election Day, he left something out: the cost.

His proposed 2018-2019 state budget released earlier this week doesn't include any money for launching the initiative, but an estimated $6.4 million in costs are to be paid collectively by county Boards of Elections, which administer the local election systems.

It is exactly what county officials had feared. Counties say that isn't fair to them, and voting rights advocates who had been hopeful there would be money for the initiative were disappointed.

"It's an assumed cost for the counties," said Jennifer Wilson, policy director for the League of Women Voters of New York State. "It's essentially a new state mandate."

The cost, if it were divided equally among the state's counties, would work out to just over $100,000 per county.

Cuomo's proposal includes "early voting" — allowing people to vote before Election Day — including no-excuse absentee voting, same-day registration and automatic voter registration. But some of these changes would require approval from the state Legislature, and in some cases a state constitutional amendment. They are all, however, items that advocates 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 earlier this month.

Counties already have a number of grievances with the state over expenses forced on them without reimbursement. County leaders often complain that unfunded mandates account for 75 percent of the average county tax bill.

"The state's got to get it right, and the proposal that was presented is not right. It is not fair to local governments, in this case county governments, that are being forced to assume the cost," said Stephen Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties. "We believe we've made the case about the unfunded burden that is placed on us, and here we go again. Voting is a matter of state concern, and the government that sets the rules should pay for it."

The idea of early voting 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. They also believe it could reduce pressure on polling sites, where in some cases there are long lines.

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 plans to fight to have the costs picked up by the state between now and next month, when Cuomo's budget office is due to submit what are called "30-day amendments."

"We will be pushing for getting that $6.4 million. It's not that much in the grand scheme of things," Wilson said.

Acquario expressed a concern that the burden of paying for early voting would be heaviest for small, rural counties like Montgomery, Fulton and Schoharie, but Montgomery County's Democratic elections commissioner, Terry Bieniek, said the county could probably do it with a single early polling place in Fonda, the county seat.

"We would need to hire workers and be open on weekends," Bieniek said. "It would be a bit of financial strain, but we could do it. It would be nice if [the state] would [fund] that, but I don't think it will happen."

Montgomery County's Board of Elections has an annual budget of about $400,000, but Bieniek said most of the costs are charged back to the towns where elections take place, and the cost of early voting could probably be passed along, as well.

Early voting is currently allowed in 36 states. But the state Election Commissioners Association declined to endorse the idea during a meeting two weeks ago in Albany.

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.

Reach Daily Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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