Should New York state join the 37 states that currently allow early voting?
The answer to that question has been presented as a balancing act between encouraging higher voter turnout in a state renowned for low turnout and opening a money-consuming path to increased voter fraud.
Only one of those factors, however, has any proven ties to reality.
During the most recent big-ticket election, only 29 percent of state voters cast a ballot in 2014, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo was re-elected. It is clear that something must be done to encourage more state voters to participate in the election process.
A proposal made by the governor would do that by making the process more flexible in letting registered voters cast their ballots over an extended period and not just on Election Day.
Counties would open at least one polling place for 12 days prior to an election, according to Cuomo’s proposal. If passed this year, it would apply to all elections beginning in May 2017.
Counties would have to open one early polling site for every 50,000 residents, up to a maximum of seven. Counties with fewer than 50,000 residents would be required to open a single site.
As Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said: “Given New York's miserable voter-participation rates, anything that can make it easier for people to go to the ballot box are things that should be considered."
Doing so certainly has paid off for the states that already have implemented early voting.
In Florida, which had early voting for the first time in 2004 — as part of a string of initiatives put in place after the debacle of 2000 — turnout increased to 74 percent in 2004 from 70 percent in 2000, according to figures from the Florida Department of State. Four years later, the turnout was up another percentage point to 75 percent.
That’s not to suggest that early voting alone contributed to higher turnouts, but again, making it easier for registered voters to participate in the process cannot hurt.
Florida’s experience with early voting has not been an entirely smooth road, with accusations made more recently of political gamesmanship in the determination of how long and where early voting would take place.
But neither Florida nor any of the other 36 states that currently allow early voting has reported significant issues with voter fraud as a result of the addition. They also have not reported significant drains on state coffers as a result of adding the additional days.
In New York, the governor's early-voting plan wouldn't have a financial impact on counties for the coming fiscal year, which runs from April through March, but after that, the cost estimate is uncertain.
It is important that the governor’s office not foist an unfunded mandate onto counties already struggling with stringent tax caps — so over the next year Cuomo must devise a way for early voting to not be a financial burden.
Freeing up voters to cast their ballots when it’s most convenient to them can only improve a process that has consistently shown growing signs of apathy. Done prudently, with controls for cost and protections against fraud, this investment in the process could very well ignite a new, more positive trend in voter turnout.
And that’s an outcome we could all rally around.