After years of rancorous consternation in the state legislature, early voting has finally come to New York. Voters now have nine days before the general election to cast a ballot.
One of the first things a new senate majority tackled in the 2019 legislative session was to provide more opportunities in casting ballots in every election. For years, a Republican majority blocked the action limiting voting to just a single day, although the Assembly passed it several times. But when the chamber switched from red to blue last year, it created the majority needed to finally pass the bill.
Voters in the northwest Bronx can cast ballots at P.S. 207 at 3030 Godwin Terrace beginning Oct. 26.
It may be surprising to some outsiders that a city and state considered generally progressive would be among a dozen in the nation that doesn’t allow early voting. Conservative leaders in Ohio and North Carolina cited New York’s refusal to pass early voting as defense when they proposed cutting voter access to constituents in 2016. A New York Times story in late 2018 called New York’s voter access among the most restrictive in the country, resulting in chronic low voter turnout.
But the bill earlier this year was intended to break down those obstacles to voting. The new law requires the state to hold federal and state primary elections on the same days. When someone moves, the new policy requires elections officials to automatically update their information. Next year, 16- and 17-year-olds can pre-register to vote, which becomes effective when they turn 18.
But perhaps the biggest and best change is allowing people more time to vote, said Jarrett Berg, attorney and co-founder of Vote Early NY. While votes will still be cast on Election Day, but early voting gives more options, no matter what the reasons might be.
“New Yorkers have never had more access to voting,” Berg said. “It is never been as convenient as it will be now for eligible voters to cast a ballot.”
Giving millions of people only one day to vote hinders participation, he said. Inclement weather, technology glitches and voter confusion can cause chaos on a day when so many things have to go right in polling places all over the city.
Expect to see a few changes. The city will mail out cards bearing a barcode that voters can bring to the polls and scan to check in. Even without the card, voters can check in with help of poll workers armed with tablet computers instead of paper records.
As long as voters show up to their designated polling site, things should go smoothly. But if they don’t, Berg is happy to educate people about their voting rights.
“Under New York law, a person can bring anyone with them to vote except for their employer, an agent of their employer, or their union boss or union rep,” he said. “So other than that, a person can have assistance at the polls if they don’t have someone either to help them interpret a ballot, or if they have a disability and they need help marking a ballot.”
They can also use a ballot-marking device or they can enlist a bipartisan team — one Democrat, one Republican — to assist them. All of these scenarios will be noted in records, but poll workers will not be there to interfere with voting, just to assist the voter.
Being able to physically go to the polls is also a priority. All voting sites will be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
If someone makes a baseless challenge in an attempt to suppress a vote, the affected person can report the event to the state attorney general’s civil rights bureau.
Berg and other voting rights advocates say this is a good start, but it could go further. Although it was debated in the state legislature this year, automatic voter registration didn’t pass. But it will likely be a priority issue next year.
Vote Early NY organizers want to see one-stop voting — where an individual can bring in identification, register and vote in the same day, Berg said. No-fault absentee voting would also expand the circumstances voters can mail in their ballots, making voting more accessible to people who are sick, have limited mobility, or are out of state.
“We’re really excited about this new access,” he said, “and what it will mean to getting more people turn out to vote.”