Note: Early this month I formally submitted this proposal to expand Early Voting in Onondaga County. When we the OCBOE formally met on Monday May 3rd, 2021 my counterpart refused to discuss expansion this year and opted to stick with just 6 sites. This makes Onondaga County the largest county doing the bare minimum of Early Voting sites in new York State. I believe the facts for expansion speak for themselves so I am releasing the plan I formally submitted In April making the case for Early Voting expansion THIS year. Below is my proposal.
Expanding Early Voting in Onondaga County
On May 2, 2021 at our monthly organizational meeting we will vote on our Early Voting sites as required by NYS Election Law. NYS requires us to have in 2019 and 2020 we elected to do the minimum number of sites 6 for over 300k voters. In 2019 the sites were Van Buren Town Hall, Clay Town Hall, Dewitt Town Hall, Lafayette Station #1, Armond Magnarelli Center, and Syracuse Connections at South West Community Center. In the infancy of the program 8k voters, or 8% of the overall turnout, chose to participate in Early Voting. The numbers were almost triple the absentee ballot universe. There were little lines though some minor traffic issues at Clay Town Hall and Dewitt Town Hall our most populous voting centers. There were complaints from those populations in the southwest corner of our county they did not have accessible location.
In 2020 in the middle of a pandemic we once again chose to keep the 6 minimum sites. However we made an important adjustment moving from Van Buren Town Hall to Camillus Fire Station. The COVID 19 crisis drove almost half of our electorate to find alternate voting methods. One of the highest turnout elections in our history we saw nearly 50% of the electorate chose not to vote on Election Day. That portion was equally divided between Early and absentee voting. Those fearing COVID-19 chose to stay at home and vote by mail while those wanting to vote by convenience chose Early Voting. The nearly 60k voters that flooded our sites caused major traffic and lines at all of our sites. The long lines and traffic issues put excess demands on the Towns and City to provide police and traffic control. Some voters waited well over 2 hours, beyond our mandate of a 30 minute wait, to cast their ballot.
Minimum sites for 2021
We agree on the six minimum sites for 2021. These are the same sites from 2020 with the exception of a temporary change moving from Camillus Fire Station to Camillus Town Hall for the General Election due to condemnation of the pedestrian bridge. We both agree that if we are to remain at 6 these sites are well spaced out and provide minimum needs for our voters. While some sites performed better than others the familiarity of these sites to the voters as well as coverage in North, South, East and West portions of the County and North and South west portions of the City of Syracuse spreads out the coverage as evenly as possible given the small number of sites.
Need for Expansion
While the unprecedented numbers in 2020 were hard to imagine earlier in the year, it was only logical that Early Voting would grow in popularity. As we saw in the 40+ states that came before us, the initial years were sparse but the growth happens over time. In many states usage of Early Voting exceeds 40% of the voting totals. In Onondaga County in 2020 we saw only 25% of our voting populace vote. There is plenty of room for growth. Despite the long lines the voters appreciated the ability to choose the hours in which they vote as well as the convenience of being able to choose polling places instead of being assigned just one.
I am grateful that facing the long lines last year we were able to reach agreement to extend hours on the final weekend of voting. This did help mitigate the wait times. However extending hours is not a significant way to deal with expected crowds. The lesson we should learn form 2020 is it would be better to disperse the voting populace by adding sites, reducing initial staffing, and then surging staff to areas that are experiencing longer waits.
Placing Expansion Sites
There are two main deficiencies in our 6 site structure. With a county as large and populace as ours it is difficult to serve all of our community’s geographic needs. The towns of Lysander, Cicero, Onondaga, and Manlius are some of our more populace communities yet do not have Early Voting sits inside their townships. Because these towns are located squarely between the current 6 site plans their populace has the farthest to go to take advantage of Early Voting. We have seen that the farther away from an Early Voting site you are the less likely to take advantage of Early Voting.
The current 6 site plan also is lacking in another quality that helps Early Voting, placing sites that are congregated by large amounts of citizens. Because Early Voting allows any voter to vote at any site, the concept of placing polling sites only near places of residence is limiting. Added value to any site would be a large amount of county residents that are expected to be in the vicinity of the site during the hours of operations 10 days before General Election Day. Places like the Civic Center and Onondaga Community College have large amounts of county residents that work or study in the immediate area. Not only would placement in these communities help the residents that live nearby, it will help all residents who frequent these areas easing the burden on all county sites.
No matter where we expand sites it is important we commit that the expansion has geographic and ideological balance as much as possible. Confidence in our integrity is important and fair placement should be tantamount to our deliberations.
For your consideration I am offering three options regarding expansion in 2021, a modest expansion to 8 sites, a moderate expansion to 10 sites, and a robust expansion to 12 sites. While I am always for the most expansion possible I understand fiscal concerns and I am willing to accept that the most aggressive expansion may not be possible this year. However since there are bills in the NYS legislature which would double the amount of sites required I felt it is important to at least start the conversation. Across the state over the last two years many counties and most of the large counties, have gone beyond their mandated minimum. They have seen on average increased usage of Early Voting.
Expansion to 8 sites: Onondaga Community College and Cicero Town Hall. This option allows us to address our most glaring needs, access to Early Voting in the Southwest and Northeast corners of our counties. Cicero has over 23k voters and Onondaga has over 16k voters. In addition to the residence in the Town of Onondaga thousands of county residents from all walks of life attend school and work at Onondaga Community College. The college faculty and administration are willing to house
us in the facility and there is plenty of parking on campus as well as the ability to reserve spaces close to the arena for those who are elderly and have mobility issues. Placement at these sites will ease the burden on our three biggest suburban sites Clay, Camillus, and Dewitt as well as achieve a site with high public concentration. Ideologically Cicero is one of the most GOP leaning towns and though Onondaga is evenly split in registrations one could assume the college population leans towards the left. Pairing these two sites gives balance to this expansion. I would also be open to North Syracuse Village Hall instead of Cicero Town Hall.
Expansion to 10 sites: Lysander Town Hall & The Civic Center in Syracuse. This is my preferred option. Adding these sites in addition to the sites at OCC and Cicero adding sites in Lysander and Downtown Syracuse is the next logical choice. Lysander has over 17k residents and the residents there have flooded the Clay Town hall site as well as Camillus. Placing a site Downtown would serve a growing downtown population that has mobility issues, be close to the Centro bus transfer station, and serve the thousands of downtown residents. Lysander has decidedly a GOP lean its registration. Any site inside the city is bound to have an ideological left lean though the makeup of the thousands of downtown workers is undetermined. Pairing these sites also gives balance for this further expansion.
Expansion to 12 sites: Salina Town Hall and Manlius Town Hall. If we really want to invest in Early Voting doubling the amount of sites is the eventual choice. Expanding to Salina and Manlius will put sites in every town with over 15k voters. It will ease the burden on the Dewitt site as well as Clay and Armond Magnarelli Center. Manlius is our third largest town 23.5k voters and Salina has 22k voters. Both Manlius and Salina have Democratic leaning registrations but when we get to this level of expansion it is harder to find areas of large population that doesn’t have a Democratic lean. The sheer numbers of population in these towns calls for expansion into them if we go to the highest level. I would be open to adding Van Buren Town Hall and the NYS Fairgrounds to also add in sites at Geddes and Van Buren in addition to these for a super expansion in the future which will bring more moderate towns into the mix.
Expanding Early Voting sites will require some expenditure of resources above the current budgeting levels. However the current budgeting levels may be inadequate even for the bare minimum 6 site plan. The main expenditure for Early Voting is the inspector totals. We already have enough Electronic Poll Books and Poll Print units to expand to even 14 sites with reasonable accommodations. We also have money in the Shoebox and upcoming Capital Grants if any small purchases are needed. The supplies spent on ballot paper and other consumables will be the same regardless of the number of sites as the population of the voters will not change drastically, only their convenience and time.
When we look at our normal 6 site plan we have staffing of 1 Poll Site Manager, 2 Voting System Specialists and 6 regular inspectors per day at each Early Voting site. This would normally cost us approximately $65,000 per nine day EV period. During the 2020 election because of the long lines we had to surge staff and increase hours. Our staff at each site went to 2 PSM, 2 VSS, and 8 inspectors and
with the added hours it cost Onondaga County over $156k. The extra staff dealt with crowd control and line maintenance as well as assisting voters with their ballots.
By expanding the sites we reduce the chances for long lines and crowded polling places requiring additional staff and hours. If we expanded sites we could reduce our staffing footprint to 1 PSM, 2 VSS, and 4 Inspectors. If needed we could surge staff to larger sites seeing more activity to reduce wait time, especially on closing weekend. Our cost ranges for the expansion would be as following: 8 sites 70k-86k, 10 sites 87k-107k, 12 sites 104k to 128k. I have attached a spreadsheet which details each scenario.
While expanding sites will add costs in some cases, it is actually less then what was spent in 2020 due to the long wait times. The more sites we add, the less likely we will have to surge staffing to deal with long lines as voters will have more options and can choose from a variety of sites. It is also worth noting that Early Voting, per voter, is less expensive to Onondaga County than absentee and mail in balloting. Expansion will encourage its use as oppose to voters who live farther away from designated sites deciding to request mail in ballots. The NYS Legislature in 2021 once again included money for early Voting Costs for the purpose of covering expansion of Early Voting. Onondaga County is set to receive between $40k and $50k. This will more than cover an expansion to the 10 site model.
I propose we expand to the 10 site model for Early Voting for 2021. We can reassess in 2022 whether this reduced wait times and provided more ease and convenience for voters. We should use the extra funds from NYS to cover the expansion costs plus reduce the overall local footprint of Early Voting on local dollars.