New York likes to think it is first in almost everything, but in adopting an early voting procedure, it ranks 38th among the states. Better late than never, as the cliché goes; however, early voting will be allowed this year for the first time.
This is an important step in improving the voter experience, but unfortunately it is not likely to boost the state’s dismal turnout. In Suffolk County, early voting will be held in a single location in each of the 10 towns for a week beginning on Oct. 26, with the polls open until 8 p.m. on Oct. 29 and Nov. 1. In East Hampton, the sole voting site is the Windmill Village Apartments on Accabonac Road. Southampton early vote polling will be in the gym at Stony Brook Southampton University.
A single place over seven days for all the town’s voters might seem stingy, but it is a start. Consider as well that staffing each polling place presents a challenge for the Suffolk County Board of Elections, which traditionally has focused on a massive, single-day mobilization and absentee ballot processing.
Logistical challenges aside, early voting is not expected to boost turnout nor shift expected election outcomes. Organizations that have looked into the relationship between so-called convenience voting and voters’ behavior have for the most part found that the option changed where and when people cast their ballots but had little effect on whether they vote or not. One clear benefit is shortening lines on Election Day, though that has never been much of an issue in most East End districts, given the generally paltry turnout.
What early voting can do is give local political parties more time to get their committed voters to the polls, rewarding candidates and committees with strong ground games. For a town with many seasonal and second-home owners like East Hampton, early voting will give weekenders a new way to be counted. Absentee ballots, until now the only option besides showing up on Election Day, can sometimes be problematic if there are even subtle discrepancies in the way signatures and addresses appear or if the ballots arrive too late to be counted. Early voting is a good way to make sure each voter matters.
But there is more to be done. New York ranks an embarrassing eighth from the bottom in voter turnout, even in presidential years. The next step in improving public participation in elections is same-day registration, that is, allowing people to vote the day they become eligible. Already, 21 states plus the District of Columbia allow this in some form or another, and in many places it has boosted turnout significantly.
In New York State, registration for the Nov. 5 election closed yesterday, about the time most people even begin thinking about politics. What is interesting is that same-day registration does not generally benefit any particular political party over another, but turnout can rise by 3 to 7 percent.
Thank you, New York, for early voting. Now, how about same-day registration?