New Yorkers are used to voting in-person on Election Day because, until last year, it was the only way most of us ever voted.
Until 2019, some 38 other states offered early voting — but not New York.
New York also usually makes it hard to get an absentee ballot, which is why, until a few months ago, only about 5 percent of votes were cast by absentee ballot in each election. This year is New Yorkers’ first opportunity to vote early in a major election, and just in the nick of time.
When voting rights advocates went up to Albany to demand early voting, we didn’t have the coronavirus pandemic in mind.
We thought about making voting accessible to people whose work and child care obligations should entitle them to an absentee ballot, but don’t. We thought about voting centers that could be convenient to New Yorkers’ commutes and public transportation. We thought about “Souls to the Polls,” the famed phenomenon where members of Black churches increase turnout by voting together on the Sunday before Election Day.
But now we also think about how our democracy and public health have been under assault. The president has been making baseless attacks on voting by mail in a desperate attempt to undermine confidence in elections. Footage of long lines at polling places this spring in Georgia and Wisconsin raises concerns about voter suppression. Avoiding crowded indoor spaces is now a critical public health practice.
New Yorkers have three ways to vote this year, and they’re all good options. But starting Oct. 24, voting early in-person will be the best option for Bronxites to vote safely, securely and conveniently.
Vote by absentee ballot if you must, but plan to request and return your ballot as early as possible. Unlike other years, the pandemic provides a basis for every New Yorker to receive an absentee ballot. New Yorkers should have confidence in absentee voting, but it does carry a greater risk of a ballot being lost or delayed in transit.
Absentee ballot rejection rates in New York are among the highest in the nation in every election. The legislature and the governor recently put safeguards in place to ensure more ballots get counted — including a procedure to correct your absentee ballot if you make a mistake, and the opportunity to count some ballots that don’t receive postmarks.
But the risk of rejection is still greater than voting in-person. Unlike in-person votes, which are counted on election night, absentee ballots aren’t counted until later, and they’re more work to count than in-person votes. More absentee ballots mean a longer wait for election results.
Election Day polling places are just a short walk from home for most Bronxites, and New York offers voters the longest Election Day polling hours in the nation. But longer lines can form at polling sites at peak times — in the morning on the way to work, or in the evening on the way home. And unexpected conflicts can make getting to the polls harder.
If you plan to vote on Election Day, go at an off-peak time in the middle of the day, if you can. New York law allows you to receive up to two hours paid time off to vote if you notify your employer at least two working days in advance.
Early voting in-person offers the best of all worlds. It’s like voting in-person on Election Day, except that you’ve got a nine-day window (Oct. 24 through Nov. 1) to cast your ballot.
On the weekends, early voting sites are open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. On the weekdays, for different eight-hour periods each day.
Your early voting site is probably different from your Election Day poll site, but it’s probably also more spacious. Poll workers outfitted with masks and gloves are ready and have time to answer your questions. Hand sanitizer and plexiglass abound.
By voting early in-person, you’ll help make polling places safe and more efficient on Election Day. You’ll make the tabulation of votes go faster, and you’ll make it more likely that your ballot gets counted.
In this critical election year, make sure your voice is heard. Make a plan to vote, and vote early in-person, if you can.
The author is a voting rights lawyer, and a member of the Voter Power Committee of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition.