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Nassau Dems at odds with Republicans over number of early polling places

Nassau Legis. Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) speaks as County

Nassau Legis. Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) speaks as County Executive Laura Curran looks on during a news conference Sunday on Old Country Road in Mineola. Credit: James Carbone

New state legislation authorizing early in-person voting this fall has Democrats and Republicans at odds over the number of polling places to open during the 10 days before the election.

Nassau's Democrats are seeking to open 19 early voting polling places. But their Republican counterparts want to hold off until learning how much the state will reimburse the county for costs that could top $3.9 million in 2019.  

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, signed legislation in January authorizing early in-person voting statewide. Counties can designate at least one early voting polling place for every 50,000 registered voters, in Nassau's case, 19, according to the law. It also says counties cannot be required to open more than seven sites.

Nassau Democratic lawmakers demanded on Sunday that Republicans commit to opening the full complement of 19. Nassau has 365 polling sites.

"We're at an impasse," David Gugerty, Nassau Democratic Board of Elections commissioner, said Sunday during a news conference in Mineola, outside the board's offices. 

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) said at the news conference that "the spirit of the law surely provides for more [than 7], and Nassau County residents demand and expect their government to do more than the bare minimum."

Advocates, including Democratic lawmakers, have said early voting, now in effect in 39 states, makes it easier for people to cast a ballot and prevents long lines and waiting periods at polling stations.

Cuomo signed the legislation after it passed the Democratic-led state Assembly and state Senate. Early-voting legislation had stalled in the Senate under Republican control.

Gugerty described having only seven polls open as "an absolute insult to the voters of this county."

But Joseph Kearney, deputy Republican commissioner of the County Board of Elections, said “staff will continue to negotiate" and that officials were awaiting word on reimbursement from the state.

"My answer is, it’s a work in progress,” Kearney said in an interview on Sunday. "Until we see what kind of funds there are, we can go from there. Right now, it’s all . . . speculative,” he said.

“Bear in mind," he said, "this is taxpayer money. . . . We’re open to further discussion."

Kearney said it was tough to project turnout on early voting days and said the elections board could open up too many locations with staffers overseeing empty stations.

“Are 19 needed? What will be the use? There's no empirical data to reflect [if] there will be an outpouring of early voters,” Kearney said. “It has never been done before."

Gugerty said the $3.9 million figure covers new "state-of-the-art" electronic poll books that ensure that voters aren't casting ballots during early voting days and again on election day. The figure also covers the cost of a "ballot-on-demand machine," which could allow people to vote outside their communities.

Most of the $3.9 million will be one-time costs associated with early voting, to be incurred only in 2019.

Suffolk County Republican Commissioner Nick LaLota said he was "confident that we will come to a reasonable nonpartisan answer to this question."

LaLota said he was considering asking leaders of Suffolk's 10 towns to designate their town halls as polling places for early voting. 

State Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) said that holding firm on seven locations "amounts to voter suppression," similar to tactics used in the "Deep South and other parts of the country."

"They're obviously afraid to let as many people vote as possible," Thomas said of Republicans.

County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat, said "Nassau County is a large county . . . That's why we have to do better than the bare minimum."

Reginald A. LaFayette, Westchester's Democratic elections commissioner, said in an interview that officials there were considering designating more than the 12 or 13 locations the law calls for. 

“To have long travel across the county from one end to the other doesn’t seem right,” he said. And he said, “Seven was never a consideration.”

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