Passed on January 29, 2019, early voting was touted as landmark legislation by politicians and voting activists, allowing New York to become one of 39 states to offer early voting options to citizens. Early voting was one of several voting reforms signed into law by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, including voter pre-registration for minors, automatic transfer of voter registration when you move, and the synchronization of state and federal primary elections. These reforms were passed as a part of Governor Cuomo’s 2019 Justice Agenda, which he explained was “an aggressive blueprint to move New York forward.”
The early voting law allows voters 9 days of voting prior to the official election day, with the early voting period ending two days prior to election day. All early voting facilities are required to provide at least 5 hours of voting between 9:00 am and 6:00 pm on weekends and federal holidays and at least 8 hours of voting between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. Each county was required to establish one early voting place for every 50,000 registered voters, resulting in the establishment of nearly 250 polling places across the state. The hope was that this early voting period would begin to break down barriers to disenfranchised voters by increasing access to polling places. Ava Mazzye, director of Election@Bard, an organization created to “register, educate, and engage” students in the voting process, echoed this sentiment. Mazzye stated that early voting perfectly fit into Election@Bard’s principles because it “opens access to the polls to all eligible voters and it makes [voting] easier obviously, by allowing both students and all members of the community to schedule voting around the other obligations of daily life.” According to Mazzye, Election@Bard’s motto “is to register, educate, and engage” in that order.
Early voting for 2019’s “off-cycle election is seen as a dry run before the 2020 presidential and congressional elections.” This dry run was apparently necessary, because in the time leading up to early voting, logistical difficulties within polling places and negative responses to polling places arose. Many polling places tried out new technologies such as iPads to instantly verify voter registration. While these technologies may be beneficial in the long run, many polling volunteers were frustrated by the short amount of time they had to prepare for these technologies and for early voting generally. Additionally, some parents expressed concerns about the presence of early polling sites in schools. Though schools are closed on election day, they remained open during the early voting period which some parents believed posed a safety threat to students.
Additionally, early voting had provided logistical problems in other states during the 2020 presidential primaries. In the days prior to Super Tuesday, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar both dropped out of the race for presidential nominee. For states such as California, Texas, and others that provide early voting options, this meant that voters who had cast votes for those candidates had essentially lost their vote; once an early vote has been cast, it can not be retracted. Because only Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are still in the running, this will not prove to be a problem in early voting for New York’s presidential primary (which opens April 18th), but it could prove to be problematic in the future.
Despite the past and future difficulties, early voting occured in New York this year and will continue in future years. Officials are still in the process of reviewing election data, but an estimated 256,000 ballots were cast during the early voting period, making up 2.1% of the registered voter population. Overall voter turnout this year was slightly higher than in 2015, the last election year preceding a presidential election. Though this may have been due to early voting, it is difficult to determine causation at this point in time.
Voter turnout is commonly low in off-years, with averages around 30% in New York compared to over 50% in primary elections years. This means that though turnout was low this year, it was likely a result of the off-year, something which even early voting can’t fix. “Early voting tends to be especially useful for folks who are very passionate about who they’re voting for,” Mazzye said. “And I think that we’ll see the case specifically in the presidential primary; I think we’ll see a larger turnout.” Though she was referring to students, this passion is applicable to the general population. Given the fact that no major races occurred in this election, voter engagement was low and turnout was low as a result.
The location of early polling places may also have played a role in early voter participation. The nearest early polling location to Bard was in Rhinebeck, which isn’t very accessible to Bard students or for much of the Dutchess County population. “We had nine early voting shuttles,” Mazzye told me, “but only a handful of students went to the polls during early voting period.” In Erie County, a majority of early polling places were located in senior centers and possibly as a result, over half of early voters were over the age of 65. Mazzye hoped that in the future, more polling places would be located on college campuses, specifically on Bard’s campus.
Despite the difficulties surrounding early voting and the questions surrounding its effectiveness, it may prove to be effective in future elections. Specifically for next year’s presidential election when higher voter turnout is expected due to the high profile races, it’s likely that we will see even higher voter turnout due to increased voting accessibility. “I think that, as we approach more high profile elections such as the presidential primary in April, we will see much more usage of the early voting period on campus” Mazzye said. Additionally, Mazzye hoped that early voting would help to normalize voting for everyone. On voting, Mazzye said, “I also just have kind of always wanted it to feel like this thing that Bard students and […] young people do,” Mazzye said of voting, “And you do it while doing everything else you do. And you protest and you organize and you dissent but you also just happen to be voting.”
Mazzye’s hope and the hope of many voting activists is that this measure will not be the only voting reform. Specifically citing automatic voter registration and publicly funded elections, Mazzye said,“I am excited to be seeing lots of initiatives both locally and throughout the state to make voting reforms.”
To get more civically involved and become more aware of voting laws in both NY and in other states, you can visit vote.org. It will allow you to check your voter registration, help you register to vote, and learn more about voting generally.