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News & Issues February - March 2024


Vote early, but not by mail?

GOP message on early voting shifts as more N.Y. voters try it


Harold Hubbard, the Republican deputy elections commissioner of Warren County, instructs elections inspectors at a recent training session on the use of electronic poll books. The devices ensure that voters who cast ballots at New York’s early voting sites cannot vote more than once. Photo by Joan K. Lentini


Harold Hubbard, the Republican deputy elections commissioner of Warren County, instructs elections inspectors at a recent training session on the use of electronic poll books. The devices ensure that voters who cast ballots at New York’s early voting sites cannot vote more than once. Photo by Joan K. Lentini


Contributing writer


Ever since he lost the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump has been claiming that increased use of early voting and mail-in ballots helped to “rig” the contest against him.
In his victory speech after winning the GOP caucus in Iowa on Jan. 15, for example, Trump called for a return to “one-day elections.”

But here in upstate New York, one of Trump’s most outspoken supporters, U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, has been leading a public relations campaign to urge more Republicans to vote early — either in person or, if eligible, by absentee ballot.

In September, Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, announced the start of Bank Your Vote, a yearlong educational campaign to promote early voting. Stefanik, working with the state and national Republican parties, said in a press release that the effort is vital to the GOP’s effort to retain House seats it picked up to win a narrow majority in 2022 — including the Hudson Valley seat now held by U.S. Rep. Marcus Molinaro, R-Rhinebeck.

“We will encourage Empire State voters and all Republicans to make a plan to legally ‘Bank Your Vote’ as early as possible in 2024,” she said.

Even as she embraces early in-person voting, however, Stefanik has lately been leading the legal fight to block widespread use of mail-in ballots in New York under a newly enacted state law that both sides say would make it easier for lots more voters to cast ballots in advance of Election Day.

On early in-person voting, the difference between Trump’s position and Stefanik’s is not one of policy, but of messaging, said Matt Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College.
Trump, he said, is appealing to supporters who generally view early voting and mail-in voting as favoring Democrats.

“His view, from a partisan perspective, is that early voting helps Democrats, which is not necessarily the case,” Dickinson said.

Stefanik, on the other hand, is conveying a message that Republicans support some flexibility in voting, a popular message with younger centrist and Democratic-leaning voters, Dickinson said.
“That seems to be a winning message,” he said.

And on a tactical level, given that early voting has been legal for five years in New York and is proving increasingly popular, Stefanik and many other Republicans appear to have concluded that it’s a mistake to let GOP voters sit out until the final day of voting.

Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political strategist in New York City, called Stefanik’s push for Republicans to vote early “a smart move.”

Robert Turner, a political science professor at Skidmore College, explained that for both major political parties, convincing dedicated supporters to vote early frees up time immediately before Election Day for campaign staff and volunteers to concentrate on hard-to-turn-out voters.
“Early voting benefits a very well organized campaign,” he said. “If you can get people to vote early, it allows you to concentrate your resources more effectively.”

The potential risk for voters, of course, is that their decisions are locked in and can’t be changed in response to last-minute developments in a campaign.


Harold Hubbard, the Republican deputy elections commissioner for Warren County, demonstrates the use of new voting machines at a late January training session for elections inspectors. Joan K. Lentini photo

Harold Hubbard, the Republican deputy elections commissioner for Warren County, demonstrates the use of new voting machines at a late January training session for elections inspectors. Joan K. Lentini photo

Local participation varies widely
Early voting, either in person or by mail, is now offered in 46 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Locally, both Vermont and Massachusetts have embraced the concept.

Massachusetts debuted its early voting system in the 2016 presidential election and this year will allow early in-person voting beginning 17 days before the November general election and 10 days before the March 5 presidential primary. The state also allows voting by mail for voters who submit a mail-in ballot application at least five days before an election.

Vermont allows early voters to obtain ballots as soon as they are printed — for statewide elections, up to 45 days in advance — and return them by mail or in person. And for the November general election, the state now mails ballots directly to all registered voters, not just those who requested to vote early — a practice that started when the pandemic hit in 2020.
New York started allowing in-person early voting in 2019. The state’s system allows voters to cast ballots at centralized polling places designated by each county during a nine-day period that ends the Sunday before Election Day.

Figures from local counties in eastern New York show the share of voters using early voting sites has varied widely from year to year. It peaked in the 2020 presidential election, which was held near the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. That year, the share of ballots that were cast before Election Day ranged from 18 percent in Columbia County to 36 percent in Warren County. (See accompanying chart on page 3.)

Early voting has proven less popular locally in lower-turnout, off-year elections in which the only races at stake typically are for county or municipal positions. But even in those years, the share of ballots cast early has been growing, particularly in counties that have expanded the number of early polling sites.

Warren County, for example, started with a single early voting site in 2019, at the county municipal center in Queensbury. That year, early voters accounted for about 6 percent of the total ballots cast. By 2023, in a similar off-year election, the county had added a second early polling place at Glens Falls City Hall, and early voters cast nearly 17 percent of the ballots in the November election.


Little effect on turnout
New York has long ranked near the bottom among the 50 states for voter participation, and supporters of early voting have argued that providing more options makes it more likely that more people will vote.

“It’s a no-brainer,” said Joe Seeman, a progressive political activist from Ballston Spa. “I’ve voted early a number of times.”

Seeman said he can’t see why anyone would be opposed to offering more opportunities for voting.

“I think there is a television commercial that says, ‘More is better,’ or something like that,” he said.

But several experts said there is no evidence so far that in-person early voting actually increases overall turnout.

“The motivation was that it would significantly increase turnout. The empirical evidence is that it has not done that,” said Turner, the Skidmore professor.

Dickinson, the Middlebury professor, said research from about a decade ago, while possibly outdated, showed in-person early voting resulted in overall turnout being either unchanged or reduced. Mail-in early voting has shown to be more effective at increasing turnout than in-person early voting, he added

A 2013 University of Wisconsin study concluded that in-person early voting actually resulted in a turnout decrease of four percentage points by reducing the Election Day “buzz” that would have stimulated some low-propensity voters to participate.

Early voting dilutes the enthusiasm generated by single-day voting, Dickinson explained.
“Voting is a social activity,” he said.

Still, supporters of early and mail-in voting say both should be available as a convenience to voters.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit public policy institute at the New York University School of Law, contends that early voting offers the advantage of “helping elections run more smoothly by diminishing long lines, improving poll worker performance and allowing earlier detection and correction of any systemic problems with registration, voting machines and ballots.”

Liz Lemery Joy, a conservative political activist from Schenectady who was the Republican challenger to U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, 2020 and 2022, echoed Trump’s claims that early voting is unreliable, saying it “opens the doors for serious election fraud and errors.”
“I believe that our election should be one day only,” Joy said.

Local elections officials of both parties, however, have maintained that New York’s early voting system is secure and reliable.

Karen Wharton, the Democracy Coalition coordinator for the progressive group Citizen Action of New York, when told of Joy’s concerns, said, “I haven’t seen evidence of that.”

One-day voting prevents people from participating in elections if they have to work or can’t find childcare on Election Day, Wharton said.

Voting by mail
Although some states have adopted mail-in voting as a way to give voters maximum flexibility and to avoid the cost of having to staff early in-person voting sites, the concept has proven controversial in New York.

For decades, New York has allowed mail-in ballots only for absentee voters — those who certify that they will be out of town on Election Day or that they have a disability or illness that prevents them from voting in person.

In 2021, the state’s voters rejected a Democratic-backed ballot proposal to amend the state constitution and allow any voter to obtain a “no-excuse” absentee ballot.

But in September, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a new law to allow all voters to cast ballots by mail. Hochul and other supporters say the new law doesn’t conflict with the constitution’s language on absentee ballots because it simply applies to early voting by all voters.

Stefanik and other Republicans promptly went to court to challenge the new law, saying it would indeed run afoul of the constitutional language as well as the results of the 2021 referendum.
In late December, a state Supreme Court justice in Albany rejected the GOP effort to stop the new law from taking effect, ruling that Republicans “cannot establish that they will suffer electoral disadvantages” as a result of the mail-in balloting. Republicans have appealed the judge’s ruling.
In the meantime, in-person early voting has increased the cost of election administration in New York, mainly to staff polling sites throughout the nine-day early voting period.

The New York State Association of Counties has been advocating for a change in state election law to allow more flexibility in the number of early-voting polling places in areas with low turnout, spokesman Mark Lavigne said.

“We’re not walking the halls of the Capitol saying, ‘Early voting is bad,’” he explained. “But we’re trying to get some flexibility in areas where there is no turnout.”

Among local counties, Washington County had the lowest share of early voters in four of the past five years. In some off-year elections, turnout at the county’s lone early voting site averaged fewer than 35 voters per day.

But Wharton said Citizen Action has been pushing to open more early-voting polling places and to ensure that these sites are centrally located.

“It gives people who want to vote options,” she said. “Here in New York, it’s a work in progress.”