Cuomo Election Reforms

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs election reform legislation, including a bill making New York the 38th state to allow early voting. 

Polling sites. Inspectors. Electronic poll books. 

To implement early voting in New York, these are a few of the items on every county elections board's to-do list. But there is a bigger question: How will they pay for it? 

In January, the state Legislature passed a bill making New York the 39th state to allow early voting. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill a week later. With the governor's signature, early voting will commence this year. 

Under New York's early voting law, there will be a nine-day period when voters can cast ballots before Election Day. The early voting window, according to the law, will begin on the 10th day before an election — a Saturday — and conclude on the Sunday before Election Day. 

Counties must have at least one early voting polling location for every 50,000 registered voters. During the week, the sites must be open for at least eight hours between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. Counties must designate one polling location that's open until 8 p.m. at least two weekdays. On weekends, the polls must be open for at least five hours between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. 

Katie Lacey, the Democratic elections commissioner in Cayuga County, acknowledged that a lot of planning will be required to properly execute early voting. One of the challenges is that Cayuga, like other counties across the state, didn't budget for early voting. 

"There's no prospect for the county flipping the bill totally on its own," Lacey said. 

When Cuomo reiterated his support for early voting, good government groups and state lawmakers believed he would include funding in his state budget proposal for early voting. However, when the 2019-20 executive budget was released, it didn't contain any money to implement early voting. 

Election reform advocates have been calling on Cuomo to add funding for early voting through the 30-day budget amendment process. The governor's office maintains that early voting will be funded by consolidating the federal and state primaries. But county officials note that any savings from the merged primaries won't be realized until 2020, the next year for federal and state-level primary elections. 

To implement early voting, it won't be cheap. The New York State Association of Counties' calculation found it will cost "no less than $31 million" to implement early voting. 

The costs include electronic poll roster books, paying inspectors and educating voters about early voting, NYSAC Deputy Director Mark LaVigne explained in an email to The Citizen. The estimate doesn't factor in other costs, such as machine preparation, security and transportation. 

Beyond 2019, LaVigne explained that counties will need no less than $5.7 million per election "just to pay for inspectors for the early voting locations." Like with early voting's implementation, the costs won't end there. 

For many counties, electronic poll books will be an important — and expensive — investment. Electronic poll books store voter registration digitally instead of the paper books voters sign at polling locations before they cast a ballot. 

Jude Seymour, the Republican elections commissioner in Jefferson County, highlighted why the electronic poll books are needed. Jefferson has roughly 80 paper books that contain the names of every registered voter in the county. During the early voting period, the county expects to have one polling site. That means every book will need to be at the polling site. For poll workers, that could be a burden. 

"I love our inspectors," Seymour said. "But they're used to dealing with one or two books, not 80 books. We need to figure out a way to do it efficiently. Electronic poll books would help us do it." 

NYSAC's board of directors adopted a resolution last week calling on the state to buy electronic poll books for county boards of elections. The group estimated that it would cost up to $1 million for each county to buy the poll books. 

For Jefferson County, Seymour said it may cost $2,500 or $3,000 to buy an electronic poll book for one election district. Jefferson has 69 election districts. 

Lacey emphasized the need for electronic poll books to properly implement early voting. Without electronic poll books, inspectors in Cayuga County will need to use the roughly 60 paper books that contain voter information. 

"It's just a paper nightmare," Lacey said. 

The number of polling locations will also raise costs for counties. Dustin Czarny, the Democratic elections commissioner in Onondaga County, said they are planning to have at least five early voting polling sites. 

Fewer sites will be open in smaller counties. Seymour said Jefferson County will have one polling site, likely in Watertown. Cayuga County will have at least one polling location, but may have three. Lacey said there have been conversations about having more polling sites because of Cayuga County's geographic shape.

For voters in some towns, it would be a long drive to cast a ballot in Auburn. Lacey and Cherl Heary, the county's Republican elections commissioner, may open polling sites to accommodate voters in Auburn, the northern towns and southern part of the county. 

The challenge will be whether the county can use existing polling locations to host early voting. Many of the polling sites are fire halls or town halls, which may not be available for the entire nine-day early voting period. That could require the county to seek alternative sites that aren't part of the existing polling location lineup. There are many factors they have to consider, including accessibility, parking and security. 

Whatever the county decides, Lacey said they want their early voting plan in place this year. While there are local elections on the ballot in November, 2020 will be a busy year for the elections board. At minimum, there will be two elections: a presidential primary and the general. There could be a third — the federal and state primary. 

"We'd certainly like to think a little bit ahead and try to come up with something that's going to be workable for down the road, not just this year," Lacey said. 

The consensus among county election commissioners is that they need state funding. Many counties already approved their 2019 budgets last year, so finding the additional money needed to implement early voting will be difficult, if not impossible. 

State lawmakers have signaled that they will push for early voting funding in the state budget. Democrats control both houses of the state Legislature, and could push Cuomo to agree to include funding for the voting reforms in the 2019-20 spending plan. 

Lacey is confident the state will deliver the funds needed to implement early voting. 

"I think they're committed to it. I think the governor is committed to it," Lacey said. "I don't think either party is interested in dropping a big expense on local governments." 

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Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.