Editorial: New York to begin early voting as way to increase participation

In this space last July, we commended an executive order signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to expand voter registration opportunities in New York. The executive order directed every state agency to make voter registration forms available and offer assistance in filling them out. The order also established a new voter registration task force.

“It is our responsibility to make it as easy as possible for people to vote because that’s what democracy looks like,” Mr. Cuomo said at the time.

Voter advocates quickly pushed back, arguing that Mr. Cuomo’s move was merely window dressing and ignored a larger problem.

Jacques David, an attorney for The Legal Aid Society and member of the Brooklyn Voters Alliance, pointed out in a letter to The Suffolk Times last summer that New York ranks 41st out of 50 states in voter participation. New York is also not among the 37 states that offer early voting — and therein, according to Mr. David, lies a key problem.

On Monday, the governor took an important step toward addressing that problem by announcing a 30-day budget amendment to fund voting reforms, including early voting across the state. It will allow voters an opportunity to vote on any of the 12 days leading up to Election Day.

For some voters, especially those who work and have children, finding time to vote on a Tuesday can be challenging. While employers are required to allow employees time to vote during the workday, that time is often specified and, if it’s inconvenient, can leave a voter apathetic.

The tradition of voting on Tuesdays dates back to the 19th century, and some politicians, including former Democratic congressman Steve Israel, have pushed for the day to be changed to accommodate a more modern society, according to a 2012 NPR story.

The legislation Gov. Cuomo announced would require every county to offer residents access to at least one early voting polling place during the 12 days leading up to Election Day. Voters will have at least eight hours on weekdays and five hours on weekends to cast early ballots, the governor said. Each county must establish one early voting polling place for every 50,000 residents, with county Boards of Elections determining specific locations.

“My colleagues and I believe this is a first and necessary step to reforming New York’s antiquated voting laws,” Mr. David wrote in an email this week.

While early voting will reduce barriers for those who are already registered, Mr. David wonders whether it will build actual voter participation numbers. He said additional reforms like automatic voter registration, same-day registration and use of electronic poll books would help to increase participation.

A report from VOTE, a Boston nonprofit that assists with voter participation efforts, found that New York ranked 41st in the country in voter turnout for the 2016 election. The report said 57 percent of eligible New York voters cast ballots.

Those are numbers that need to be bolstered. Early voting is one step toward making that happen.