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Early voting law highlights partisan divide

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CANTON - The state Assembly passed legislation this week that would give New Yorkers the chance to cast their ballots two weeks in advance of election day.

But the legislation making New York the 33rd early voting state has been met with hostility by some who fear early voting could raise the price of elections for counties.

“This again is Albany passing down an unfunded mandate,” Assemblyman Kenneth J. Blankenbush, R-Black River, said.

Mr. Blankenbush voted against the bill.

Mr. Blankenbush said the bill would require counties establish five polling places, which are open for 14 days without state funding to pay for it.

“I’m not going to vote for any unfunded mandate,” he said.

Assemblyman Marc W. Butler, R-Newport, also voted against the legislation in part because he feels it’s not tailored to meet the needs of the north country.

Mr. Butler said Hamilton County, which he also represents, has a population of 5,000 and would have to establish five polling places for early voting, the same as more populated counties.

“There would be absolutely no benefits in the upstate areas,” he said.

Of the north country delegation, only Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, voted for the measure.

“I think we all recognize that there is much lower voter participation in our elections than there should be. This legislation starts the dialog in order to encourage more voting,” she said.

Mrs. Russell also said the costs associated with the legislation could be mitigated by adding flexibility into future legislation. She believes that consolidating the number of polling places in addition to keeping them open longer may alleviate some of the financial burden associated with early voting.

Jennie H. Bacon, St. Lawrence County Board of Elections Democratic commissioner, said although early voting may cost the county more, “I think it would be a great opportunity for our voters.

“New York state is ranked 47th in the nation in voter turnout,” Mrs. Bacon said. “St. Lawrence County’s average turnout is lower than the statewide turnout.”

In the 2012 general election, Mrs. Bacon said 62 percent of the county turned out to vote, compared to 34 percent in 2011 when there wasn’t a presidential election.

On the other side of the aisle, Republican Elections Commissioner Thomas A. Nichols condemned the measure. He said he doesn’t think early voting will help with voter turnout.

“There’s a reason that people aren’t turning out to vote. People are disgusted by the process,” he said. “They don’t need more days to vote.”

In the state Senate, the bill’s prospects are dim, according to north country senators.

“I don’t think it’s going anywhere in the senate,” Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, said. Sens. Elizabeth O’C. Little, R-Queensbury, and Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, agreed.

It isn’t all partisan stonewalling, however. While Democrats and Republicans in the north country are divided over this particular piece of legislation, they agree more flexibility for counties would be a positive step forward in future bills.

Mr. Butler said he thinks exemptions for smaller counties may be in order.

“We’re really two states tied together by one government,” Mr. Butler said of the divide between upstate and downstate.

Mr. Griffo said he is interested in possible changes to the day elections are held and making absentee ballots more accessible.

“Maybe [election day] should be on Sunday or Saturday,” he said.

Mr. Griffo said more avenues should be investigated before any laws are passed.

Mrs. Ritchie agreed.

“It looks like the best way to generate higher voter turnout would be to look at improving our absentee voter system,” she said. “It’s too complicated.”

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