Update: On May 30, the New York City Board of Elections announced it would add 19 more early voting sites. But this plan still leaves significant gaps in access, particularly in communities of color. The Board also still does not plan to let people vote at any early voting site in their county. Instead, voters will have to vote at the specific polling site assigned to them. 

Original story below ...

New York has some of the most backwards and outdated voting laws of any state in the country. As a result, New York had the eighth-worst turnout in the country in the 2016 general election, with just 57 percent of voting-age citizens casting a ballot.

So the New York Civil Liberties Union cheered when early this year the state passed much needed voting reforms, including nine days of early voting across the state. This year's state budget also included $10 million to fund early voting in the 2019 elections. 

But the New York City Board of Elections, the city agency in charge of carrying out the vote, could end up undermining this important effort to strengthen our democracy. 

Early voting is a critical way to drive up voter participation. One of the top reasons people report not voting is that they were “too busy or couldn’t get time." Early voting makes it much easier for people with work and family obligations to cast their ballot at a time that's convenient for them. 

But under the Board's plan, New York City, with its 5.1 million registered voters, would have just 38 early voting sites – 10 locations in Brooklyn and seven each in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island. The board inexplicably decided to make it even more difficult for New Yorkers to vote by mandating that people use one particular early voting location, rather than being allowed to use any of the polling places in their borough. 

This plan is not only inadequate, it will also advantage white New Yorkers over people of color. The early voting law passed by lawmakers this year requires “at least one early voting polling place for every full increment of fifty-thousand registered voters in each county.” With the conspicuous exception of the majority-white Staten Island, no New York City borough comes close to meeting that threshold. 

Early voting sites in Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan  have between two and four times as many registered voters assigned to each location compared to Staten Island.

All of this means it will be harder for New Yorkers of color to cast their ballot during early voting than white New Yorkers.

Further, the population of eligible voters in Staten Island is 68.5 percent white. By contrast, the population of eligible voters in Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn are majority-minority while Manhattan is about evenly split between voters of color and white voters.

All of this means it will be harder for New Yorkers of color to cast their ballot during early voting than white New Yorkers.

The number of early voting sites is inadequate and the distribution across boroughs imposes a burden on many of the city’s low-income voters of color who often work long, inflexible hours and may not have access to transportation. The Board's plan may also violate state and federal law by creating fewer opportunities for racial minorities to participate in the political process.

Last week, the NYCLU, Common Cause New York and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sent a letter to the Board demanding that it significantly increase the number of early voting polling sites. Funding should not be an issue. Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised $75 million in funding and identified 100 possible polling sites. 

The letter also asks for details, under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, about how the Board came up with its plan, how the sites were selected and why it decided to require that people be assigned to one specific polling site in their borough. The Board made these decisions in the dark, without explanation or public review.

In response to blowback to their plan, Board officials have said they would like to do a limited version of early voting this year and then roll out a more robust version in 2020. But this is exactly the wrong approach.

First of all, there is an election for city-wide office in November 2019: Public advocate, the position next-in-line to be mayor. Improving historically low turnout for city elections should be a priority for the Board of Elections, among others.

But even more important, we need a fully functioning early voting system in place this year. There will not be time to scale up for the massive increase in turnout that will take place between this November’s general election and both the presidential primaries in April 2020, and the general presidential election in November 2020. It will be too late by then to work out the kinks. 

We have to do early voting right and we have to do it right now. 

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The New York Civil Liberties Union is a state affiliate of the ACLU

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