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Albany Democrats push early voting for New York

Rockaway resident Sheresa Walker, left, uses a flashlight

Rockaway resident Sheresa Walker, left, uses a flashlight as poll worker Lloyd Edwards assists before voting in a makeshift tent set up as a polling place at Scholars' Academy, PS 180, in the Rockaways. (Nov. 6, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

ALBANY -- New York's consistently low voter turnout and the Election Day problems superstorm Sandy caused have sparked a drive by Democrats to make New York the 33rd state to adopt early voting.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) are backing proposals that would allow New Yorkers to cast ballots one or two weeks before Election Day. Cuomo said early voting would lessen the risk of another catastrophe keeping people from the polls.

"Early voting is one of the most important steps necessary to improve voter turnout by making voting more convenient," the governor said in his written budget proposal for fiscal 2013-14.

Republican leaders in the State Legislature so far have been noncommittal.

New York has "consistently" ranked 47th in the nation in turnout, Cuomo noted. After Sandy, turnout slid to 53 percent from 59 percent in 2008, according to data compiled by Michael McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University. Nassau County's voter turnout plunged by more than 75,000 in November compared with 2008; Suffolk's fell by 65,995, according to the state Board of Elections.

In the four states with the highest turnout in 2012, the number topped 70 percent, led by Minnesota at 75.7 percent, McDonald said. Two of them -- Wisconsin and Colorado -- have early voting, according to FairVote, a voting advocacy group.

In November, New York City voters, at polling sites ranging from East Flatbush to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, had to stand in line for hours, partly because of problems with optical scanners. Some polling centers ran out of provisional ballots for voters from Sandy-stricken districts, according to media reports. In Nassau, some residents from flooded areas were unable to vote because they had temporarily relocated out of state.

Evidence called inconclusive

Some supporters argue that opening polling centers for two weeks or so before Election Day would bring in more people who work long hours or have lengthy commutes, seniors and others.

Not everyone agrees.

Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at The Brennan Center for Justice, a Manhattan-based think tank, said the evidence is inconclusive.

In addition, early voting reduced turnout by more than 3 percentage points in the 2008 election, according to Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, who analyzed county-level turnout and early voting.

Stretching voting over more days takes the fizz out of Election Day, he said, when "people who could be persuaded [to vote] one way or the other" are motivated to do so by media coverage, conversations with neighbors, polling signs and the like.

Still, Charles Stewart, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology political science professor, said there are early signs that presidential campaigns, which have more powerful get-out-the-vote programs than state counterparts, have learned how to motivate early voters.

"You can see it -- in Florida, at least -- there are some people who only vote in presidential elections and they only vote early," Stewart said.

Early-voting proponents also say it lessens Election Day strains on machines and county officials. Opponents say early voters might miss a crucial turn in a campaign and they cite the extra expense and the difficulty of staffing polling centers for multiple days.

Election Day registration

In contrast, there seems to be general agreement among political scientists that allowing voters to register on Election Day strongly raises turnout. Three of the states with the highest turnout in 2012 allow same-day registration: Minnesota, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, according to FairVote.

"What certainly has a big impact on turnout is the ease or difficulty of getting registered. That's the big hump," said Carol Nackenoff, a political science professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

New York would have to amend its constitution, which requires voters to register 25 days before an election, to allow same-day registration.

Around the nation, clashes over early voting and same-day registration often mirror partisan divides, with Republicans saying anti-fraud curbs are needed and Democrats saying such laws can be discriminatory and depress voting.

Cuomo is proposing an early-voting period of at least one week, which would include the weekend before Election Day. Each county would have to have "a minimum number of polling sites," at the boards of elections, state Department of Motor Vehicles offices and "central community locations."

In December, Silver proposed a bill to open the polls 14 days before a general election and seven days before a primary or special election.

A spokesman for Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) had no comment.

Michael Long, chairman of the New York State Conservative Party, said he opposes early voting, but might change his mind if it were paired with voter identification to prevent fraud.

"You need ID to get on a plane, you need ID to get into most buildings now. I don't see the problem with having voter ID," Long said.

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