Northeastern states weigh move to early voting

Northeastern states weigh move to early voting
© Greg Nash

Legislators in several Northeastern and New England states are considering whether to join the growing move toward opening polling places days, and even weeks, before Election Day.

Connecticut legislators will weigh a measure to allow up to two weeks of early voting before the next election. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) included an early voting proposal in a package of election reforms he unveiled this month. And Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea (D) will ask legislators to consider allowing early voting, as well.

"We just need to expand voting infrastructure to include early voting so people can exercise their franchise, their right," said Connecticut state Rep. William Tong (D), who plans to introduce a bill once the legislature returns to session next year. 

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Tong said he decided to act after seeing lines out the door at 6 a.m. on Election Day in his suburban Stamford district. Some people left the long lines before they had a chance to vote to get to work on time.

"That just struck me as being wrong, that people who get up at 5 in the morning or 5:30 to get to the polls should be able to vote," he said. "Connecticut certainly has the resources and the infrastructure to make that happen."

While voters in most of the country are able to cast their ballots long before Election Day, either in person or through the mail, Northeastern states have long been the exception.  

New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire are among the 13 states across the country that do not allow early voting and require an excuse to obtain an absentee ballot. Massachusetts requires an excuse to cast a ballot by absentee, though the Commonwealth allowed early voting in 2016 for the first time, after legislators passed a new law in 2014.

Swing states Michigan and Virginia do not allow early voting, nor is it allowed in Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and Delaware. 

In states where early voting is available, the practice is becoming increasingly common. About 23 million Americans voted in person before Election Day this year, and another 24 million voted by absentee ballot, according to preliminary statistics compiled by University of Florida political scientist Michael McDonald. 

All told, that means more than a third of the approximately 139 million Americans who voted in this year's presidential election cast their votes before Election Day.

Many Northeastern states have resisted moving to early voting, McDonald said, because those state require municipalities to administer elections, rather than county governments. That puts a strain on already-squeezed local governments, which might not have the financial resources necessary to add early voting days.

"There's a cost issue here, where these local clerks are stressed as they are, and adding early voting without providing the resources to support it would be quite a burden to them," McDonald said.

Several Northeastern states also have a strong tradition of participatory democracy. More than half of New Hampshire municipalities still hold annual town meetings to debate local issues. Small towns in Massachusetts, Maine and Connecticut also hold town meetings at least once a year. 

"Connecticut is quote unquote the land of steady habits. We're used to a more traditional structure," Tong said. "There's something about getting yourself to the polls."

Across the country, Democrats have used early voting to get their supporters to the polls, in many cases to a greater extent than Republicans, who usually do better in absentee voting.  

But not all Democrats support the move to adopt early voting. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a Democrat who is elected by the legislature, still opposes opening the polls early. His state, he said, already turns out at high rates. More than 70 percent of eligible Granite Staters voted this year, all but a small handful on Election Day.

"We're seeing turnout nationally go down in each of the last three elections even as more and more states rush to make it easier to vote by having early voting," Gardner told the New Hampshire Union Leader earlier this month.