High voter turnout expected

MOHAWK VALLEY — Officials in Fulton and Montgomery Counties are anticipating an above average voter turnout this year with an already expanded use of absentee ballots due to the coronavirus and early voting in the state set to begin on Saturday running through Nov. 1.

“This is an unusual year, so we do anticipate a higher volume of voters,” said Montgomery County Board of Elections Democratic Commissioner Terry Bieniek on Thursday.

In Montgomery County where there are over 29,000 registered voters, Bieniek estimated 3,500 requests have been received for absentee ballots for this year’s general election with new requests still coming in daily.

“It’s much larger than in any previous year that we’ve had, it’s probably three times the amount,” said Bieniek of absentee ballot requests. “Normally for any election we’re get either 1,000 or lower so it’s quite a difference and applications are still coming in.”

Requests for absentee ballots in the state can be submitted by mail postmarked by Oct. 27 and can be requested in-person at local Boards of Election as late as Nov. 2.

In Fulton County where over 34,000 residents are registered to vote, Board of Elections Democratic Commissioner John Zawadzki agreed that requests for absentee ballots are up this year and still climbing.

“This year we’re doing a brisk absentee mailing business,” said Zawadzki. “I could get 1,000 more absentee applications this week.”

As other areas of the country where early voting has already begun are experiencing record turnouts, Zawadzki and Bieniek are both unsure of what to expect when the polls open for early voting for nine days beginning on Saturday.

“Who’s going to come? I wish I knew; planning involves all of those elements of knowing how much and when,” said Zawadzki.

Election officials don’t even have any benchmarks to compare early voter turnout in presidential election years to as early voting in New York was offered for the first time in November 2019.

“It was a novelty last year, we only had approximately 500 people turn out,” said Zawadzki. “It’s all new to everybody. I’d be surprised if we got less than 500 [early voters].”

Montgomery County is also expecting an increased number of early voters from the roughly 200 to 300 residents who came out last year.

“I just don’t know how much more,” said Bieniek.

Each of the counties will have only one polling site for early voting; the Fulton County Services Complex Building at 2714 Route 29 in Johnstown and the Montgomery County Old Courthouse at 9 Park St. in Fonda, respectively.

Zawadzki acknowledged that there could be wait times if large numbers of Fulton County’s registered voters show up to vote early at a single day and time at the site where only two voters can cast ballots at a time. But he pointed to the increasing number of absentee ballot requests as potentially reducing the number of in-person voters during early voting and on election day on Nov. 3.

“Based on prior experience we can accommodate everybody comfortably,” said Zawadzki while acknowledging that in presidential election years typically 60 percent of registered voters cast ballots compared to roughly 30 percent voter turnout in most other years.

“I think the hours are spread out where hopefully people won’t come all in one day or weekend, they’ll be spread out through the nine days so that will certainly help,” said Bieniek.

Both counties will have additional election workers this year to maintain social distancing, ensure masks are worn and to provide cleaning throughout voting hours in addition to monitoring the polls and signing in voters.

“We did get a good turnout of new election workers, especially on the democratic side. All in all, we probably got at least 50 new people, if not more,” said Bieniek.

Elections staffers in Montgomery County will also be stationed at polling sites specifically to collect absentee ballots to ensure anyone turning in their absentee ballot by hand can avoid waiting in line or impacting the wait time for other voters who are casting ballots.

Bieniek estimated that roughly half of the requested absentee ballots in the county have already been returned by voters to await counting after election day. While absentee ballots are typically mailed in, Bieniek noted that many voters have been making the drive to the Montgomery County Board of Elections in Fonda to drop off their ballots, which could indicate that more voters will also make the trip to vote early this year.

“I think we’ll just have to wait and see. We’ll probably get a feel of it the first couple days and see what the response is,” said Bieniek. “This is an unprecedented year, so we’re prepared.”

Each of the counties will also operate more than 25 polling locations a piece on election day which Bieniek and Zawadzki indicated may temper early voter turnout locally and spread more voters out throughout each county on Nov. 3.

“There’s still a number of people in this county that like to vote at their poll sites,” said Bieniek. “We basically get them through pretty quick on election day.”

Early voting hours statewide are: Oct. 24 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Oct. 25 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Oct. 26 from noon to 8 p.m.; Oct. 27 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Oct. 28 from noon to 8 p.m.; Oct. 29 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Oct. 30 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Oct. 31 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Nov. 1 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

All registered voters can vote early at the designated polling sites in their county of residence. Votes cast during the early voting period will be canvassed and reported after 9 p.m. on election day.

Voting hours on election day on Nov. 3 are from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

By Patricia Older