Suffolk County’s early voting system, which begins statewide in October, is wholly inadequate and could suppress minority voter turnout by providing a limited number of polling sites, advocates said Thursday.
A law, passed by the State Legislature in January, provides voters with nine days of early voting, including the two weekends before the election, beginning Oct. 26 and running through Nov. 3.
But at a forum in Sayville, early voting proponents charged that the Suffolk County Board of Elections met only the bare minimum of the law and failed to meet the public's expectations of access, convenience and due process.
"We need to get these early votes sites to the communities that need them the most in terms of convenience," said Mark West of the advocacy group Suffolk Progressives. "We need them where people have the most difficulty with transportation and access."
Suffolk — which limits early voting access to the town where the voter resides — is allocating a single early voting site for each of its townships. The plan provides the same number of locations for the 1,300 residents of Shelter Island and the 486,000 residents of the Town of Brookhaven, which has a large minority population. Other large townships, including Huntington, Babylon and Islip, also have large populations of black and Hispanic residents.
In total, the four Suffolk towns compose roughly 84 percent of the county's population but have only four of the 10 early polling sites.
"This skews the availability of early voting to the smaller population towns," said Ed O’Donnell of Sayville Citizens, a voting advocacy organization. "This means longer lines and longer wait lists for the larger towns."
Comparatively, Nassau County, which is smaller geographically and has fewer registered voters, allocated funding for 15 voting sites that can be used by any resident. The Nassau sites are clustered largely in Hempstead Town, in the southern tier of the county.
Suffolk will provide the state minimum of 60 hours of early voting availability while Nassau plans to provide at least 75 hours of early voting time, officials said.
Jarret Berg, co-founder of Vote Early NY, said Suffolk’s decision "runs afoul" of both the letter and the spirit of the law, noting that municipalities were instructed to take into account both population centers and transportation patterns when selecting early voting sites.
"The one site per town plan creates a situation where, for far too many working families and minority communities in Suffolk's largest towns, the greater access intended by the new law … will remain out of reach," Berg said. "We need to fix that. And will fix that."
Suffolk Progressives founder Shoshana Hershkowitz proposed increasing the county's early voting sites to 21, including five in the Town of Brookhaven, three each in the towns of Islip, Babylon and Huntington and two in Smithtown Town.
"It is really crucial that we address this and that we fix this before our 2020 primaries and general election," Hershkowitz said. "This is an urgent matter."
In an email Thursday night, Suffolk GOP Elections Commissioner Nicholas LaLota said the county had less than six months to make the changes mandated by the state. "Other states had up to three years to implement Early Voting programs."
"County Boards like Suffolk are working around the clock to revamp a training program to train thousands of Inspectors who will staff about 1,500 Early Voting shifts and 5,000 Election Day shifts" at 10 polling sites, LaLota said. "If the legislature gave us more time so as to ensure proper training, we would have been open to more sites but unfortunately, that was not the case."
The state Board of Elections distributed $24 million to local election boards for early voting as part of the 2019-20 state budget agreement. Nassau got $1,061,306 for capital expenses and more than $737,314 in operating aid, such as poll workers' salaries, according to state figures. Suffolk got $1,001,253 for capital costs and $671,470 for operational expenses, officials said.
In March, the Nassau Legislature approved borrowing $3.7 million in capital costs for early voting, including for electronic poll books, which prevent revoting, and ballot-on-demand technology, which allows people to vote in any of Nassau's designated poll sites.
In June, LaLota said the cost to implement early voting would run about $2.74 million in 2019 while operational costs would total $468,579. The state allocation, he said, represents less than 50 percent of the actual cost of early voting, with the remaining cost borne by Suffolk taxpayers.