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Jefferson election commissioners criticize cost of early voting plan

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Jefferson County officials just completed an election district overhaul to save money and oppose legislation that threatens to add $100,000 in expenses to facilitate early voting.

“Is this about to be another mandate handed down by New York City to make it easier for their residents to vote?” asked Board of Legislators Chairwoman Carolyn D. Fitzpatrick, R-Watertown. “Don’t put this on the shoulders of taxpayers in rural areas. We don’t need it and we’re not asking for it.”

Bills in the state Senate and Assembly intended to increase voter turnout would require counties to staff five centralized election sites 14 days before a general election and seven days before a primary.

Lewis County legislators voted unanimously Wednesday to oppose the idea. They were joined by Genesee County lawmakers, who went on record against the proposal. And while St. Lawrence County legislators have yet to take a position, the election commissioners in that county expressed concern about the one-size-fits-all approach to early voting the legislation seems to embrace.

The proposed legislation would add at least $100,000 to a general election’s cost and $50,000 to a primary election’s expense, according to Jerry O. Eaton, Jefferson County’s Republican election commissioner.

The Board of Elections pays inspectors $200 a day to oversee poll sites.

Each of the five election sites would have to accommodate voters from across the county and have ballots for every district.

To handle the more complicated early voting, Mr. Eaton said, the board would likely employ six inspectors at each of the five sites.

As opposed to Election Day, when polls are open for 15 hours, the five early voting sites would have to be open for only 11 hours.

Even if the board reduced the $200 daily rate to account for the reduction in hours, the county would still spend an additional $67,000 in inspector pay alone if the legislation goes through.

And that doesn’t take into account such ancillary costs as additional ballot printing, increased overtime for permanent staff members under a union contract and trucking expenses.

Technology probably would have to be adjusted as well.

Democratic Election Commissioner Babette M. Hall said moving to electronic poll books, which can cost thousands of dollars apiece, would be the only way to ensure voters don’t vote twice.

The legislation also stipulates the ballots cannot be counted until after Election Day.

“That’s 14 days’ worth of cast ballots under lock and key that you would not be able to tally until after Election Day,” Mr. Eaton said.

Those ballots would be treated as “emergency ballots” and would have to be hand-fed through a scanner — a “monumental undertaking” that would add countless hours and exorbitant costs to counties already trying to contain ever-increasing election expenditures, according to Mr. Eaton.

The legislation aims in part to alleviate long lines at polling places, which reportedly have caused problems, especially for elderly voters, during the past three presidential elections.

Both commissioners said lines are not much of a problem in Jefferson County.

In lieu of such a costly proposal, Mrs. Fitzpatrick suggested the state re-examine its absentee ballot procedures.

The Board of Legislators has yet to take a stand on the issue, but its chairwoman is making her feelings known.

“I am opposed to it,” Mrs. Fitzpatrick said. “Individual legislators have asked about it and no one seems to be in favor of it.”

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