In many ways, New York can rightly claim to be at the forefront of progressive change over the last several years. It was one of the first states to pass marriage equality back in 2011. Five years later, the state became the first to enact $15 minimum wage legislation and, that same year, passed a comprehensive paid family leave policy.
But when it comes to voting, New York remains in the dark ages.
The District of Columbia and 37 states allow some form of early voting, but New York isn’t one of them. Thirty states and DC permit or require no-excuse absentee balloting, but not New York. And 15 states and DC offer same-day voter registration, while New York requires voters to register 25 days before an election.
Not surprisingly, our state’s inaction on voting reform has contributed to dismal results at the ballot box. 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 – even with two New Yorkers battling for the presidency. New York also ranked 47th among the 50 states and DC last year in voter registration rate, at just 59 percent.
This means many New Yorkers’ voices are not being heard and they don’t have a say in who represents them.
State lawmakers know all this, which is why it was so disappointing that no voting reforms were passed as part of this year’s budget. The governor and legislative leaders often include substantive policies in the budget, as they did in 2016 with the aforementioned $15 minimum wage and paid family leave policies. But this year, voting reform, along with a host of other positive policies, was left on the cutting room floor.
One bit of good news came last week when Gov. Cuomo announced he would sign an executive order granting people on parole the right to vote. Restoring voting rights of people on parole is crucial to encouraging civic participation, making our political process more inclusive and making sure people who were previously incarcerated return to their communities successfully. But there is a lot more work to be done.
Fortunately, there is still time to make New York a leader on voting rights by passing the following reforms this legislative session:
Early Voting and No-Excuse Absentee Balloting
One of the top reasons people report not voting is because they’re too busy. Work and family obligations, health and transportation issues, and other unexpected obstacles can make it too difficult to cast a ballot in-person when you only have one day.
Amending the state constitution to permit no-excuse absentee balloting could help make voting easier by allowing anyone to vote by mail. Lawmakers can get the process rolling this year by passing a proposed amendment that would allow no-excuse absentee balloting – in fact, the Assembly just passed it and delivered it to the Senate this month. Next year’s legislature would need to pass it again, and it could go to the voters for final approval as soon as November 2019.
And while amending the state constitution takes time, the legislature can act now to pass a law providing a substantial period of in-person early voting, to help make sure that all voters can find a convenient time to cast a ballot.
Shorter Registration Deadlines
New York’s deadline to register 25 days before an election was passed before most modern computing and Internet technology. There’s no reason the deadline shouldn’t be legislatively reduced to 10 days before an election – the minimum required by the state constitution. Closing that gap to provide Election Day registration will require an amendment to the New York state constitution, but we can begin that process this year as well -- and pave the way for same-day on-site registration in New York by 2020.
Automatic Voter Registration
Under current state law, the burden is on voters to make sure that they’re registered. Automatic Voter Registration eliminates that burden by registering any eligible citizen who comes in contact with a state agency, unless the citizen chooses to opt-out. Automating voter registration is a 21st century-fix to make significant improvements to New York’s dismal registration rate.
Electronic Poll Books
At many polling locations around the state, a poll worker looks you up in a huge paper poll book so you can stand in another line where another poll worker looks you up in another giant paper poll book. As large as those paper poll books are, they may be missing significant numbers of “inactive” voters, who are registered but haven’t voted recently. Electronic poll books will make voting more efficient, and ensure that more voters get to cast a real ballot that gets counted, rather than a provisional one that might not.
Many people I’ve talked to are genuinely shocked by the state of voting laws in New York. Options that people in many other states take for granted simply don’t exist here.
It’s past time for that to change.