Advocates: early voting measures aren't enough
Starting this fall, New Yorkers will be given their first-ever chance to vote early in the state’s general election.
Beginning on Saturday, Oct. 26 and continuing through Sunday, Nov. 3, a total of 10 polling locations throughout Suffolk County will provide voters the opportunity to vote before Election Day (Nov. 5). But a number of local and state advocates don’t think the measures are enough.
In January, the New York State Legislature passed—and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law—early voting, which gives voters nine days before Election Day to cast their ballots.
But speakers from the Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ panel discussion, hosted on Thursday, Aug. 29, argued that Suffolk County barely meets the minimum state requirements, resulting in only one polling station placed in each of the 10 townships, four of which contain over 80 percent of the county’s nearly 1.5 million residents.
Locals weigh in
Ed O’Donnell, from the Sayville Citizens group, said New York’s early voting laws “penalize” any county below Westchester, as other county’s farther north have lower populations and require fewer voting locations, which act as the standard for the rest of the state. He noted that based on these standards, counties farther south with much higher populations, like Suffolk and Nassau counties, are personally responsible for the additional costs associated with early voting.
He pointed out the dissimilarities between the county’s least-populated township, Shelter Island, which has a little over 2,400 residents, and the most populated township, Brookhaven, which has a little over 486,000.
O’Donnell also referenced the second highest, Islip Town, which includes over 333,000 residents. Regardless of population, he stressed that these townships are only given one polling station each for the early voting period.
“Certain demographic groups are negatively impacted by this plan,” O’Donnell said, noting the higher concentration of African-Americans and Hispanics that live in communities north of Sunrise Highway, such as Brentwood and Central Islip, who tend to have multiple working parents with sporadic work hours and lower instances of car ownership, which enables travel to polling places.
Shoshana Hershkowitz,from the Suffolk County Progressives group, believes the county’s board of elections should install a total of 21 polling places. The move, Hershkowitz said, would begin to “mitigate some of the demographic inadequacies” associated with the state’s early voting.
Mark West, another representative from the Suffolk County Progressives group, said the alleged purpose of the recent law was to increase voter participation, noting the state’s consistently low turnout when it comes to voting. He suggested that the board of elections allow voters to cross town lines and use a different county polling place. He also took issue with Islip Town’s early voting station, located at town hall on Main Street. The location, he said, is no longer the “population epicenter” of the town.
Jarret Berg, from Vote Early NY, noted that Nassau County, which has over 100,000 fewer residents than Suffolk, has 15 polling places designated for early voting and allows voters to use any of the stations, regardless of the township it’s located in.
Board of Elections’ response
Nick LaLota, the Republican commissioner of the Suffolk County Board of Elections, responded to a request for comment, stating that “with less than six months in between the passing of the most expansive changes to New York's election laws in decades and the state-mandated implementation of those changes, Albany acted hastily by requiring county Boards of Elections to implement these rushed changes in 2019.”
The changes, he said, while popular with the public and good for our democracy, should have been allowed to be implemented with more lead time, like in 2020 or 2021. Other states, he explained, had up to three years to implement early voting programs.
In response to the changes, Suffolk is working to revamp training programs with thousands of inspectors who will staff about 1,500 early voting shifts and 5,000 Election Day shifts, LaLota promised.
“With all of these new changes, it was my goal to ensure that we have our staff properly trained and prepared to oversee the early voting process,” he added. “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.”
Anita Katz, the Democratic commissioner of the Suffolk County Board of Elections, was out of the office until after Labor Day and couldn’t respond by press time.
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