How We Can Make Sure Early Voting Works for New Yorkers

Have you heard? New Yorkers are getting early voting soon! Starting this fall, you'll be able to cast your vote ahead of Election Day at a time that's convenient for you, including on the weekends. But in order to make sure that this reform is implemented in a way that make sense for the millions of busy voters across New York City, we've made a list of recommendations for the New York City Board of Elections (BOE) to consider. We'll be sending the BOE's commissioners the letter below, and we want to get your take! Let us know what you think of these recommendations in the comments below. 

Dear Commissioners,

As you know, this past January, Governor Cuomo signed a bill into law establishing a 9-day early voting period in New York State. Early voting, which has already been implemented in a majority of states around the country, is an important way to expand access to our democracy. It will give voters, many of whom juggle work and family obligations, much-needed convenience and flexibility by providing more options for when to vote. Additionally, it eases the burden of having 4.5 million voters in New York City casting a ballot on only one day.

We are aware that the Commissioners have many difficult factors to consider as the Board of Elections begins to implement early voting for the first time in the nation’s most populous city. These decisions must be made quickly in order to administer early voting this November. We discussed many of these challenges and concerns with voting advocates and members of the public at the April 3rd meeting of the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee (VAAC), and we have a number of preliminary recommendations to relay. As you consider how to implement early voting, we urge you to prioritize the voters’ experience and make administrative choices that will best serve the voters of New York City.

Recommendation: Use a vote-center model at the citywide level to ensure all New Yorkers have access to efficient early voting.

The Board of Elections should place poll sites with the goals of limiting congestion and creating ease of access and visibility for voters during the early voting period. State election law states that the number of polling locations need not exceed seven in any particular county, and counties must provide one poll site for every 50,000 voters in their county. Since seven poll sites per county is inconsistent with the standard of one poll site per 50,000 voters, we believe  that the BOE should adhere to the minimum standard of one poll site for 50,000 voters, Seven poll sites per county will not be sufficient to meet this standard.  For example, as shown below, under the minimum standard required by law, each site would serve far more than 50,000 voters in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. During the early voting period, the New York City Board of Elections (BOE) should provide additional polling locations in each borough to ensure that all New Yorkers have equal access to efficient early voting.

Number of Voters Served by Poll Site under Minimum Poll Site Requirements

 

Registered Voters [1]

Required Poll Sites

Number of Voters Served per Poll Site

Bronx

719,780

7

102,826

Brooklyn

1,456,482

7

208,069

Manhattan

1,014,419

7

144,917

Queens

1,177,500

7

168,214

Staten Island

292,832

5

58,566

Poll site locations are the most critical element of successful implementation of early voting. There are several ways to approach poll site placement for the early voting period. First, the BOE could assign voters to poll sites based on where they live. This strategy may result in a lack of convenience for certain voters, particularly those living in the outer boroughs, depending on where the Board of Elections chooses to place poll sites around the city. Second, the BOE could implement a vote center model by borough. Third, the BOE could implement vote centers citywide. The early voting legislation does not preclude New York City from administering early voting as a city, rather than by county. To ensure maximum convenience, voters should be able to cast a ballot at any voting location in the city during the early voting period. This would require a vote center model, a system in which voters may cast their ballots at any designated center in their jurisdiction, regardless of their residential address. Additionally, the provision of funding for electronic poll books in the budget will help to ease the administration of vote centers for early voting. Currently, 13 states[2] allow jurisdictions to use vote centers on Election Day, and additional states also permit the use of vote centers during their early voting periods.[3]

Early voting will require the BOE to think differently about choosing poll site locations. To determine where to place locations, counties must consider how to mobilize voters to their early voting polling locations. In states like Texas[4] and Nevada[5], for example, early voting locations have been placed in “non-traditional sites like grocery stores, libraries, and shopping malls, places where people are going for other reasons.”[6] That way, voters may find themselves at a polling location on any given day and be reminded to cast their ballot. The BOE should provide poll sites at borough offices and consider placing poll sites in major transit terminals, libraries, post offices and other public locations that many New Yorkers already frequent. To determine optimal polling place locations, the BOE should consult with transportation advocates and study transit data to determine which areas and transit hubs see the highest volume of New York City voters passing through on a regular basis.    

Recommendation: Integrate ballot-on-demand technology with existing voting machines during the early voting period to reduce poll worker and voter confusion.

Another important consideration in implementing early voting is how to most efficiently provide ballots to voters at early voting “super-sites” or vote centers. Currently, New York City uses optical scanner technology, which could be adapted to early voting through the use of ballot-on-demand systems. There are existing products that can be integrated with New York’s current voting technology, which would decrease the cost of implementing early voting. This technology is likely to reduce poll worker error and ensure that all voters are given the correct ballot as voters and poll workers alike will be familiar with the technology, while new technology may cause confusion at early voting poll sites. Further, such a system would require only moderate changes to poll worker training, while implementing an entirely new voting system would require a complete overhaul of the existing poll worker manual. We should not be asking voters to learn how to operate new voting technology while we are simultaneously asking them to adapt to a new way of voting during the early voting period. A ballot-on-demand system paired with existing voting equipment would provide maximum convenience, while reducing costs and the need for extensive poll worker training.

Recommendation: Provide hands-on, comprehensive poll worker trainings in advance of the early voting period.

There are still a number of questions about how best to utilize poll workers during the early voting period, many of which have not been answered by the State Board of Elections. When determining a strategy for recruiting, training, and assigning poll workers, the New York City Board of Elections should consider the following questions:

  • Will poll workers serve single eight-hour shifts during the early voting period?
  • How much will poll workers be paid for staffing early voting poll sites for the condensed time period?
  • Will recruitment for early voting poll workers differ from recruitment for Election Day poll workers, and if so, how?
  • How will training for early voting poll workers differ from training for Election Day poll workers?
  • How much will it cost to staff all early voting poll sites during the 10-day early voting period?

Presently, there are many questions that need to be addressed about recruitment, training, and compensation for poll workers during the early voting period. Regardless of which early voting system the BOE implements, we encourage hands-on, comprehensive poll worker trainings to ensure that all locations are staffed by knowledgeable and prepared employees during the early voting period. 

Recommendation: Provide an abundance of resources to New Yorkers about early voting to ensure voters are informed about when and where to cast a ballot early.

Educating New Yorkers about the early voting period is critical to ensuring that they take advantage of early voting. For example, news coverage about early voting and turnout estimates during the early voting period will help remind New Yorkers about upcoming elections. To provide further public education about early voting, the Campaign Finance Board will publish information about early voting, including dates, times, and locations in the official Voter Guide, which is mailed to all active registered voters in New York City prior to a local election. Additionally, during the April 3rd meeting of the VAAC, we received feedback that the BOE website is difficult to navigate, and members of the public who attended the meeting reported struggling to find relevant information on the site. The Board of Elections should provide clear, easy-to-find instructions about early voting times, locations, and registration deadlines on the homepage of its website so that all voters have the information they need to cast a ballot on their own time.

The convenience and simplicity of early voting, which is already enjoyed by voters in 38 other states, cannot be overstated. We ask that the Commissioners consider the recommendations outlined above, and we look forward to working with you to make sure that as many voters as possible are able to take advantage of early voting and make their voices heard in our democracy.

[1] These numbers are pulled from the New York City voter file dated January 2019.

[2] These states include AZ, AR, CA, CO, IN, IA (for some elections), NM, ND, SD, TN, TX, UT, and WY.

[3] “Vote Centers.” NCSL. 2018.

[4] “Early Voting.” VoteTexas.gov.

[5] “Early Voting Information.” Nevada Secretary of State.

[6] Giammo, Joseph and Brox, Brian. “Reducing the Costs of Participation: Are States Getting a Return on Early Voting?” Political Research Quarterly. June, 2010.


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  • Brian Ian Smith
    We also need to make sure that vote by mail passes too. It needs to pass a second legislative session, then approved by voters as a ballot proposal in 2021.