October 21, 2021

Primary elections facing changes

If you go to vote in the June 23 primary elections, you’ll notice a few things:

  • You’re very likely not at your typical polling place.
  • The poll watchers you’ve come to recognize might not be there.
  • You’ll probably get two ballots, and they’ll need to be fed into two machines.
  • Everyone will need a mask, and to bring their own pens (no pencils, and no red ink, please).

Not everybody is happy about this.

“If someone wants to vote in person, they have a right to vote in person,” said Gus Wehbe, a Truxton town board member, complaining that the Truxton polling place normally the Truxton Fire Station has been moved to Cuyler. “We have senior citizens in Truxton who don’t have transportation.”

But the shift — like most of the changes across the county as polling places have been condensed — come with reasons, said Tom Brown and Robert Howe, the Cortland County elections commissioners.

The county Board of Elections has a shortage of two elements critical to an election: poll workers and polling machines.

The first comes because COVID19 has posed a disproportionate risk to older people, including the population of poll workers who normally staff polling places, they said. “We’ve had many people decline to work this election,” Brown said.

The second comes because the on-again, off-again, on-again Democratic presidential primary means Democratic voters will need to fill out two ballots, and that will require two machines to count them, Howe and Brown said.

“That’s something we’ve never had to do before,” Brown said. “It is nothing we’re planning to do permanently. We don’t like changing polling places, either.”

“We don’t have the machines to do what they want,” Howe said.

Beyond that, each polling place must now offer enough space, both inside and outside the building, to maintain 6-foot social distancing guidelines.

In Truxton’s case, they said, the Truxton fire station is a smaller facility with less parking, unless people park across the street, which presents its own dangers. The Cuyler fire station has more space, even if it’s 4 1/2 miles to the northeast of Truxton.

That’s less convenient, Wehbe said, particularly for the residents of a senior housing complex who can now walk to the Truxton station, and for voters who head southwest into Cortland to work or to shop.

“The right to vote is a sacred right,” he said, adding the town would have been happy to offer other spaces, such as the gymnasium at Truxton Academy or Truxton town hall.

“This all could have been avoided,” he said. “We are in consultation with our town attorney” and may pursue the matter in state Supreme Court.

Howe and Brown point out that the right to vote isn’t being infringed — only the convenience of voting in a particular place.

In fact, every enrolled Republican and Democrat is being mailed an application for an absentee ballot, so they can still vote without risking exposure to the coronavirus that would come with voting in person.

That’s among the reasons why the board will offer early voting at its River Street office, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. from June 13 to June 21.

“All of these things played a part in this,” Brown said. “We have to keep the safety of the voter and our own staff in mind, too.”