Many new laws change the landscape of New York elections
YATES COUNTY – Since January 2020, the New York State Legislature has passed numerous new laws governing the conduct of elections in towns, cities and counties across the state. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic has precipitated several short-lived laws and decrees that will expire on December 31, 2021. Each law and decree has changed the terrain on which elections are held.
First, in 2019, early voting was created to expand the window during which votes can be cast on voting machines by 66 hours spread over one week and two weekends before polling day. This applies to county (including cities), state and federal political contests. The elections for villages and schools were not affected. The intention of the law and its operational changes was to make voting more convenient and reduce the crushing of voters in long lines at predominantly urban polling stations on election day. In Yates County, where waiting to vote is rarely an issue, the central early voting site in the county office building has been underutilized.
Second, postal voting, a well-established method of voting, has been expanded. Normally, postal ballots were primarily used by voters who were out of town, such as snowbirds, or unable to leave their residences. During the pandemic, many voters were afraid to leave their homes and the state called for separation and isolation. As a result, in 2020, an executive decree waived the usual application process. Anyone who was afraid of getting sick could have a ballot sent out on request. In Yates County, about 30% of voters in the hotly contested 2020 presidential election voted with mail-in ballots. New York State Election Boards expect more voters to use this method of voting as they become more familiar with its convenience.
Third, the state legislature has approved legislation to make the “no excuse” absentee vote permanent. While this is starting to look like the postal ballot seen in other states, it still forces voters to request the absentee ballot. Details of this change are still being worked out and it will take effect in 2022 if approved by New York state voters in the November ballot. Another bill requires the state to open an electronic portal through which voters can obtain the “no-excuse vote” without signature, and requires county election boards to accept various requests for ballots by fax, phone and email . Overall, the intention here is to make voting much easier for everyone, especially people who “live” on their computers and cellphones.
Fourth, a new law allows counties, together with their electoral councils, to combine and consolidate electoral districts into larger groups of eligible voters. This bill recognizes that more voters will be diverted to postal voting and early voting from polling day. It also recognizes technological developments where electronic voting machines and electronic poll books are able to process voters faster.
Voters in Yates County have started to feel this shift in the last four elections. The use of postal ballots has increased and, according to Commissioner Robert Brechko, is expected to remain high.
With legislation requiring that postal ballots be counted and displayed on polling day, as well as the results of advance polls and in-person voting on polling day. This should satisfy voters who fear their votes will not be counted on election night. Currently, these votes are not counted until about a week later.
Most of these new laws required procedural changes at the local level and resulted in increased spending. As a result, the Commissioners researched and adopted legislated procedures and changes that will reduce some of the increased expenses. Costs have been significantly reduced through the use of electronic poll books and ballot-on-demand technology, instead of pre-printed ballots. Other expenses were reduced by serving several electoral districts in a municipal polling station and thus reducing the number of workers required.
As voting technologies shifted from old lever-operated voting machines to paper ballots and verifiable electronic scanning, the state saw the need to constantly evolve electoral law. As the ease of getting around by car and the rural and urban economies have changed, going to vote has also changed. Commissioner Robert Schwarting cites the decade’s transition to the electronic age as one of the main causes of change in elections. That and the nationwide growth of mail-in voting are behind this great wave of change for voters in Yates County.
The Commissioners’ Crystal Ball appears to show that more people are voting by post and that the few most underutilized and expensive to operate polling stations will be clustered into nearby polling stations that are easily accessible. All of the state’s new laws point to a centralized, electronic, Internet-supported voting system, where voting is by mail and there are a limited number of Election Day sites to vote or cast a ballot. number of votes already filled.
Commissioners Schwarting and Brechko warn there will be growing difficulties, duplicating spending and voter concerns as the state legislature changes election law and a new order evolves. Unfortunately, part of the change is driven by the needs of large urbanized counties and creates problems and expense for smaller, more rural counties. At the same time, some of the changes present long-term opportunities to improve voter engagement and reduce costs. Commissioners agree that shifting ground, while unstable for a while, is not always a bad thing.