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After a bumpy start, NY prepares to launch early voting

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and actor

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and actor Ben Stiller after the governor signed a bill into law to allow for early voting in New York on Jan. 24. Credit: AP / Mark Lennihan

For the first time ever, New Yorkers will be able to participate in early voting, as more than 200 polling sites will be opened to the public across the state beginning Saturday.

New York lagged other states, dozens of which have had early voting for years. And the rollout has been bumpy, with complaints about insufficient numbers of sites, less-than-convenient hours and inadequate — and late-arriving — funding provided to counties.

But at least early voting is finally here, lawmakers and advocates said. And the initial run comes in a year when just local offices are up for grabs, giving officials a chance to make improvements for 2020, a presidential election year in which turnout is expected to be very high.

Starting Oct. 26 and running through Nov. 3, the Sunday before Election Day, 248 polling sites will be open around New York. There are 25 on Long Island.

“This is a major step in the right direction and it will result in more people participating in the democratic process,” said Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove), who sponsored the legislation to authorize early voting. “For years, we have lagged behind many other states when it comes to modernizing the voting system. We no longer lag.”

State lawmakers approved a new early voting law in January, making New York the 39th state to offer its residents the option.

The law made counties responsible for establishing sites and hours, with a mandatory minimum of 60 hours offered. Some low population, rural counties created just one centralized site, which will make driving to cast an early ballot less convenient than driving to a regular polling site on Election Day.

Other complaints have focused on counties not offering enough after-work-hours opportunities to vote.

On Long Island, Nassau County has 15 sites ready to go. They can be found here: https://www.nassaucountyny.gov/DocumentCenter/View/26669/Early-Voting-Flyer-v4?bidId=

Suffolk County has been criticized for having just 10 sites — including providing just 1 in the town of Brookhaven, population 486,000. Suffolk’s sites can be found here: https://www.suffolkcountyny.gov/Departments/BOE/Early-Voting-Information

Suffolk officials sought to tamp down criticism by later changing the rules to say a county resident could vote in any of the 10 early-voting locations and not just the place he/she resides. That helps just a little, critics said.

“It doesn’t really cure or solve the problem it was supposed to. But it’s a start and they really need to bolster it for next year,” said Ed O’Donnell, a member of Sayville Citizens, a voting advocacy organization.

He said Suffolk officials need more sites — especially near large population centers and mass transit routes.

State lawmakers last spring authorized $10 million to help counties staff and open early-voting sites. But as of late August, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration hadn’t released the money to the locals.

In an Aug. 22 email to county boards, the state Board of Elections told them just $2.2 million would be coming through. After a brief uproar and a raft of news stories, the administration approved the release of the full amount.

State legislators who enacted the program said the first run will be a learning opportunity.

“I would have liked to have seen more sites and more hours,” Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) said. “Of course, (counties) will say we didn’t give them enough money. That being said, I think it is workable for an off-year election and we will learn a lot of lessons to apply to the presidential election.”

Already, the state’s Senate and Assembly have slated a Nov. 20 review to assess “what was done right and what was not done right,” Lavine said. The goal will be to develop proposals for the 2020 session of the State Legislature, which opens in January.

No one’s hazarding a guess about how many people take advantage of the system in its first year.

“Several studies have shown only a slight uptick in turnout with early voting,” Assemb. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) said. “So I hope this additional expense isn’t all for naught.”

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