By HEATHER NELLIS
Recorder News Staff
Local election commissioners have mixed sentiments on state legislative bills that would respectively establish early voting, and loosen requirements that could disqualify affidavit ballots.
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, announced that he helped pass legislation in the Assembly April 30 that would allow early voting in all general, primary and special elections in New York. The bill has been delivered to the Senate, and referred to committee.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk's first set of sponsored bills seek to codify the decisions of the Appellate Court that helped the freshman senator secure her election.
The early voting bill would provide voters with a two-week time frame to cast their ballots beginning on the third Thursday prior to a general election, through the Thursday before election day.
In the case of a primary or special election, early voting would run from the second Thursday before regular voting, until the Thursday prior to election day, giving voters a week to vote early.
In both cases, polls would be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends.
Local boards of elections would designate at least five early voting sites in each county, and the boards would automatically be designated as a polling place in each county. The boards would also be allowed to staff early voting sites with appointed inspectors, or their own employees.
Early votes would be secured throughout the early voting period, and the results would not be released prior to the close of polls on election day. In addition, the names of each early voter would be recorded to ensure that early voters are properly removed from poll books.
The District of Columbia and 32 other states currently permit an alternative to in-person voting on election day, Santabarbara said.
"It's not always easy for hardworking families to get to the polls," he said. "We should be doing everything possible to ensure that everyone who wants to cast a ballot is able to do so."
Montgomery County Commissioner Jamie Duchessi and Schenectady County Commissioner Brian Quail, both Democrats, support the early voting bill.
Duchessi said, "I think it will increase voter participation."
"We are always looking for ways to increase participation in elections," said Quail. "Giving voters more options, like early voting, will allow more people to take part."
Montgomery County Republican Commissioner Terrance Smith, however, cited information released by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to refutes that.
The commission, according to its website, is responsible for collecting information about election administration issues, and sharing that information with U.S. Congress, election officials and the public.
"So far, early voting has not led to increases in voter turnout," said Smith, quoting a Sept. 30, 2010 press release on the commission's website. "Nor has it had a notable effect on the speed with which election results are reported."
Further, the federal commission says establishing and running an early voting program can be cost prohibitive, particularly when governments are forced to do more with less.
"America's decentralized election system allows states to adopt voting procedures that are most beneficial to voters and taxpayers, and that may or may not include early voting. For instance, states that don't have long ballots, and have shortages of poll workers, voting equipment, or technical support may be less likely to benefit from early voting."
Fulton County Democratic Commissioner Lynne Rubscha and Smith consider the early voting bill an unfunded mandate.
"No one has the extra money, and it's very costly," Rubscha said.
Smith agreed -- noting his calculations indicate it would cost $38,400 extra between the general and primary elections just to pay election inspectors, whom are in short supply, he said.
Smith said there's also a likelihood of election boards having to change poll sites to accommodate the extra 15 days, including two Saturdays and two Sundays. Some poll sites are in churches, some in privately-owned facilities, and both are paid for their use daily. Others are in fire houses, schools, or town offices and courts, he said.
"The inconvenience early voting would impose may be more than any poll site would be willing to bear. Thus causing the board to relocate poll sites, but where -- as the choices are already limited," he said.
Smith said legislators should have considered the cost per voter prior to introducing the bill. He pointed to the city of Amsterdam, which Census data indicates has a population of roughly 18,000 people, and 4,500 registered voters.
"During the presidential election, 2,800 people [in the city] came out and voted," Smith said. "Then compare that to the total population -- how is early voting going to change that?"
Rubscha thinks there are other measures the state could consider that would be more cost-effective, like taking the lead of Washington and Oregon, which utilize mail-in votes.
"We already have the absentee ballots available, and they can be deemed a 'no excuse' absentee," Rubscha also suggested. "That would correct the problem because people could vote at home at their leisure."
Codifying the 46th Senate District court battle
Tkaczyk, D-Duanesburg, on May 1 announced legislation "to protect New Yorker's right to vote and to have their vote counted."
One of the measures would prevent affidavit ballots from being disqualified for "insignificant, hyper-technical reasons," said Tkaczyk, as long as the voter is eligible, registered, and in substantial compliance with voting regulations.
The bill, which was referred to committee in March, eliminates the requirement to include previous registration addresses when applying for an affidavit ballot.
Some of those ballots were tossed during Tkaczyk's race against Republican George Amedore Jr. upon challenges from Amedore's legal team, though some were reinstated by the Appellate Court.
"Our democracy will only thrive if citizens participate and vote," Tkaczyk said. "We should be encouraging residents to get involved in the process and cast their vote, rather than creating unnecessary obstacles that prevent their votes from being counted."
Both Quail and Duchessi support that bill.
"We can look up and see their prior address in our system, so it's just extra information that's not needed," Duchessi said.
"These seem like common sense measures -- because they are," Quail said.
He says if a voter provides an affidavit ballot, and, based on its contents, the board can tell the voter meets the substantive requirements, the voter should be allowed to vote. "The fundamental right to vote should not be infringed upon because of paperwork technicalities that have no relationship to eligibility."
Smith declined comment on that bill.