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Editorial: Past time to update how New York votes

A voter marks his ballot via cell phone

A voter marks his ballot via cell phone light at the generator powered First United Methodist Church in Oceanside, New York. (Nov. 6, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

Those people you saw yesterday in long lines -- but, oddly, without gas cans -- were just trying to vote. As always in New York, it was much harder than it ought to be.

In Nassau County, there were reports of optical scanner machines jamming, in addition to the Sandy-caused obstacle of voters having to go to alternate polling places, because regular locations were unusable.

In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg voiced frustration with long voting lines and other glitches: "I kept hearing, 'What's this, a Third World country?' "

Actually, in terms of voting, our state is a Third World nation. We make voting too difficult, in ways that other states make easy. If we spread out the voting over more days and in more ways, we could avoid the long lines and confusion -- and more readily adapt to Sandy-like emergencies.

Getting an absentee ballot, for example, should be a lot easier. But our state constitution says voters need to be out of their home county at the time of the election -- or be sick or disabled -- to qualify. We need no-fault absentee ballots, so voters can get one pretty much on demand.

We could also use early in-person voting, so that New York voters could do what President Barack Obama did: He voted in a Chicago polling place Oct. 25.

Scholar Michael McDonald, who runs the United States Elections Project at George Mason University in Virginia, predicted that 34.6 percent of all votes cast in this election will have been cast early, either in person or by some other means, such as absentee ballots. In New York, he said, it would be no more than 4 or 5 percent.

We also need easier-to-read ballots; elections agencies staffed by professionals, not by agents of the two major parties; email notification to voters of last-minute changes in polling places or other issues; Election Day registration, and other modern methods that some states already use.

We know what it takes to make voting easier. It's time Albany and local governments made us a First World state at election time.