vote fraught

Board of Elections Hustles to Fix Late Start on Early Voting Rollout

Voters faced long lines at a Bedford-Stuyvesant polling place during the 2018 midterm election.
Voters faced long lines at a Bedford-Stuyvesant polling place during the 2018 midterm election. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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UPDATE: Hours after the original version of this story was published, the city Board of Elections updated its website to allow people to find out exactly where they could cast an early ballot beginning Oct. 26.

The city Board of Elections’ scramble to launch early voting for the first time in New York’s history left voters in the dark on where to cast ballots — until Wednesday, after THE CITY spotlighted the issue.

The elections board has designated 61 sites for early voting, which is set to begin on Oct. 26.  Under the BOE’s plan, voters must go to a specific location and can’t simply use any polling site in their borough.

As of Tuesday night, the BOE’s online locator only showed voters their polling site for Nov. 5, Election Day — and those spots do not necessarily line up with early voting locations.

That was an apparent violation of the state’s Early Voting law, according to Jarret Berg, the co-founder of Vote Early NY, a nonpartisan group. He noted that the law requires registered voters to be notified at least 65 days before an election of exactly where they can cast an early ballot.

But a BOE spokesperson said the agency interprets the law to mandate only that the city list the locations and hours of the early voting sites online — and not necessarily tell individual voters their designated polling place.

“In this case, we satisfied the requirement,” said the spokesperson, Valerie Diaz.

Election officials on Tuesday had promised that the online poll locator will be updated in the next few days to also show people where they must go to vote early. By late Wednesday morning, after this story was first published, the site was fully functional.

Meanwhile, the BOE plans on Monday to send all 4.7 million registered voters a mailer listing that information, as well as their regular polling site and instructions on how to cast absentee ballots.

Berg noted the New York City was not alone: The vast majority of New York State counties missed the so-called siting deadline. But the other counties have all since put plans in place, he said.

‘Dramatic Disparities’

The state law also requires election boards to allow voters to cast their ballots at any of the early voting sites in their county or borough. But the legislation offers a loophole to New York City, which argues that it’s necessary to restrict voters to one early voting site to maintain election integrity.

Berg and other voting-rights activists have urged the city to give voters access to any spot in their borough to make the process easier.

The activists also question why Staten Island, where there are 313,930 registered voters, has nine early polling sites — the same number as Manhattan, which has 1.8 million registered voters.

“There are dramatic disparities,” Berg said.

Early in the planning process, Diaz said, a BOE commissioner said that Staten Island needs additional sites, in part, due to the lack of public transportation in the borough.

Some election experts expressed fears that some voters will be assigned to spots far from home.

“I have concerns about how this is going to happen,” said Perry Grossman, senior staff attorney in the voting rights project at the New York Civil Liberties Union.  “The board has not been as transparent as it could be with respect to site location and why they have to assign voters to an individual site.”

Meanwhile, the agency’s staff hasn’t tweeted any updates about the upcoming election since June 25.

“We had to wait for the sites to be confirmed and for the voters to be assigned to their early voting locations prior to doing an active social media push,” said Diaz.

A Handful of Contests

The upcoming election is deemed a low point in the election cycle, with no race expected to be hotly contested.

In Queens, voters will select a new district attorney with Melinda Katz viewed as a shoo-in. A handful of judicial races are also in play throughout the city.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is expected to cruise to victory. The citywide ballot also will contain five proposed changes to the City Charter. The referendum items include Ranked Choice Voting and amending the structures of the Civilian Complaint Review Board and the Conflicts of Interest Board.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has urged the board to open 100 early voting sites, earmarking $75 million for the task.

City Hall gave the board a list of 100 possible sites that could be used for the necessary 10 days, according to a city official involved in the process. BOE officials nixed some of those spots, arguing they were too small or didn’t meet the federal requirements for voters with disabilities, the city official said.

“This administration is extremely disappointed that even with substantial resources, the BOE has once again failed to deliver for New York City voters,” said mayoral spokesperson Jose Bayona.

CORRECTION (Sept. 25, 2019, 12:50 p.m.): The graphic in this story has been updated to correct some inaccurate mapping of poll sites.

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