Early voting obstacle

Polling places are few and far between

Posted

Early voting is finally coming to New York, but a decision by the city’s elections board has dampened the enthusiasm of some Bronx lawmakers.

It’s not that people like Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz and Councilman Andrew Cohen don’t support early voting. They just feel the city’s elections board is doing nothing more than just going through the motions.

Only seven sites will host early voting in the borough, allowing voters to cast ballots 10 days in the lead up to Election Day. For them, it’s not enough, especially since none are in the Northwest Bronx.

“If the goal of early voting is to make it easier for people to vote, make it more accessible, and hopefully increase turnout, then let’s do it right,” Dinowitz said. “The seven poll sites they’ve come up with in the Bronx is far from adequate for a county the size of the Bronx.”

The poll sites closest to Community Board 8 are Monroe College in Fordham Heights and St. Anthony’s Church in Wakefield. Other polling sites include the Bronx County Supreme Court House, Bronx River Community Center in Parkchester, the Mitchell Community Center in Mott Haven, and churches in Throggs Neck and Baychester.

And don’t expect to simply visit one that might be nearby on when out and about in the borough: Voters will be assigned to one polling location

“Failing to allocate one location for the early voting in the entire area of the northwest Bronx is outrageous,” Cohen said in a statement. The elections board has “made the location so far from the members of the northwest Bronx community that they will be significantly burdened if they choose to participate.”

Dinowitz pointed out disabled and elderly voters will be at a disadvantage. In a letter to elections board president John Zaccone, Cohen warned the scarcity of early-voting sites would lead to long lines and wait times. The greater Northwest Bronx alone has more than 400,000 people, and typically boasts the highest turnout in the borough.

“I’m baffled that we were not selected for a spot for this,” Cohen said of his council district. The elections board has until May 29 to finalize the early voting polling sites in order to get state funding.

Cohen, however, is not optimistic the elections board will get their act together in time. “Their track record is mixed at best.”

After being blocked by senate Republicans for years, the new Democratic majority in Albany made early voting and other election reforms a top priority coming into the new session. The legislation was passed and signed in January, mandating an early voting site for every 50,000 registered voters.

By those numbers, the Bronx should have 16 polling sites. But there’s a wrinkle in the law: Counties don’t have to open anymore than seven polling places. That leaves Bronx, Queens, Kings, Suffolk, New York, Nassau, Westchester, Erie, and Monroe counties exempt from the one-site-per-50,000-voters requirement.

Mayor Bill de Blasio promised $75 million in additional funding for the elections board if they designated 100 early voting sites in the five boroughs. They chose 38.

“For whatever reason they increased it in Brooklyn, which is perfectly appropriate,” Dinowitz said. Brooklyn was awarded 10 early voting sites, while the rest picked up seven sites each. That means Staten Island will have one location for every 45,000 voters, while the rest are looking at numbers of at least 100,000 voters per early voting site.

The law is written so voters can cast early ballots at any polling location in their county, but the city’s elections board is taking advantage of exceptions involving ballot distribution and voter verification issues. The planned implementation of printable “ballots-on-demand” and e-poll books should mitigate those concerns, but activists were hoping 2019 would be a dry run to work out the kinks before the 2020 presidential election.

Now there’s a fear the elections board will stick with the assigned polling place model rather than figure out the logistics to follow the law as intended.

Jarret Berg, a co-founder of the nonpartisan Vote Early NY, said the lack of flexibility is a “major barrier” to the goal behind early voting: Getting more people to the polls.

“This program doesn’t seem to take into account people’s needs,” Berg said. “It seems to take into account the board’s fear of change.”

Bronx activist Diana Finch has long been engaged in the fight for expanded voting rights. For her, this most recent decision by the elections board is par for the course.

The board acts in order to follow the language of the law, not to make voting more accessible, Finch says. “They do the minimum that’s required by law.”

When elections officials initially reached out to the Bronx Democratic County Committee, Dinowitz recommended several possible sites, including P.S. 207 and P.S. 141 in Kingsbridge. While he now believes the elections board is trying to avoid using schools as polling sites for the 10-day early voting period, he hopes they will consider places like the Mosholu Montefiore Community Center in Norwood.

Even de Blasio is speaking out. Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune, the mayor’s chief democracy officer, shared a list of more than 200 potential voting locations around the city. Schools like John F. Kennedy Campus and P.S. 207 were included on the list.

“By having so few sites, it makes it almost meaningless,” Dinowitz said of the existing plan. “I think the Board of Elections is doing the bare minimum the law requires for the moment.”

Early voting will kick in for this fall’s elections. Beginning Oct. 26, designated polling sites will open between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on the weekends, but between 9 and 5 from Monday, Oct. 28 to Wednesday, Oct. 30. Early sites will open between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m., on Thursday, Oct. 31 and Friday, Nov. 1.

Election Day is Nov. 5.

Comments