Mixed Reviews of Early Voting in Advance of 2020 Election

Length of early voting period, lack of education on early voting concerns

Tom Puckett
November 21, 2019 - 4:00 am

Buffalo, NY (WBEN) - New York state’s first experiment with early voting went smoothly in a quiet election year ahead of the 2020 presidential race, state and local election officials said Wednesday.

While it’s still unclear how early voting impacted turnout, the officials praised the rollout at a hearing Wednesday.

“Voters reported enjoying the convenience of selecting a day and having time to go and vote,” Robert Brehm and Todd Valentine, the co-executive directors of the New York State Board of Elections, said in a statement. “Wait times were minimal and the experience was streamlined.”

The officials also highlighted that county boards of elections launched early voting “in a narrow time frame and with minimal fiscal support.”

It’s unclear just how much early voting has cost counties. State grants of $14 million for electronic poll books and $10 million for early voting were available to counties that applied.

"There were a few hiccups, but first time around you expect that, but for the most part it went very well," says Erie County GOP Chairman Karl Simmeth.

"I'm all for early voting but as long as it's that drawn out, I'm not a fan of it." Simmeth prefers the weekend before Election Day as the early voting period. "Most people look to election dsay as Election Day, and if they can't make it to the polls on Election Day, they have the option of the absentee ballot. I don't like the period drawn out," referring to the eight day period the week before the election.

Can it get any easier?  "There was a polling place in every town. I don't think you can make it any easier unless inspectors come to your house and ask for your vote," says Simmeth.

Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes says early voting didn't go as well as she thought. "I think it's a great start, but I think we could have done a lot better," says Peoples-Stokes. "We could have started talking up as a reality before the law was implemented. I don't think the average person is paying attention to laws being passed and dates they're implemented as people think they are so we should have started long before Election Day to encourage access to early voting."

Peoples-Stokes expected more people to vote early. "Everyone in my circle used it, my family used it, I used it, and I think more could have used it if they were educated about it," says Peoples-Stokes.

She says education for next year shouldn't wait. "Why are we not adding the fact you don't have to wait until Election Day to vote in New York State. If people can get in their psyche Election Day is not one day anymore, it's a longer period of time, there's no reason to start the public education starting now," says Peoples-Stokes.

The State Board of Elections is set to meet with local election officials in December, and officials plan to report their findings about cost and implementation issues to lawmakers.

Over 256,000 people cast their ballots before Election Day between Oct. 26 and Nov. 3, according to unofficial figures provided by the state Board of Elections, which says New York has nearly 12 million active registered voters. Nassau County saw about 30,000 early voters, while several more rural counties, including Washington, saw roughly 300 voters cast ballots early.

Elections officials are still reviewing turnout data, but unofficial figures show New York City and several counties saw slightly higher turnout on 2018 Election Day compared with 2015 — the last time there was an election preceding a presidential election. That includes Schohaire County, which saw over 56% turnout on November’s Election Day, up from 35% in 2015.

New York City, meanwhile, had 14% turnout on this year’s Election Day, compared with 6.6% in 2015. City voters faced several ballot questions, including a successful campaign to allow future voters to rank candidates in certain races.

Still other counties saw a dropoff in their overall numbers: Albany County’s turnout was 30.9%, down from 33% of voters in 2015.

Early voting rates were also a mixed bag — about one in five of the votes cast in Erie County were early. Meanwhile, just 2% of votes in Steuben County were cast early.

Some experts have said early voting could be just another option for voters who otherwise would have turned out on Election Day.

Voter turnout in 2020 may also be boosted by a new state law that allows voters to take off time from work to vote on Election Day.

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