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As Early Voting Surges Across America, New Yorkers Can Only Watch & Wait

At the Friends of Crown Heights School
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At the Friends of Crown Heights School Scott Heins / Gothamist

Across the country, millions of voters have been casting ballots early, surpassing expectations set by previous low turnout midterms and pointing to the possible existence of a very real Blue Wave—or maybe not. While it's probably still too early to know what any of this means, there are definitely some encouraging signs of bubbling civic excitement: In 26 states, more people have already voted than in the entirety of the 2014 midterms; despite blatant voter suppression attempts in Georgia, residents are smashing previous midterm early voting records; and young voters under 30 are casting ballots at unforeseen rates and gaining ground on the significant participation advantage held by older voters.

Here in New York, all we can do is watch. While 37 other states allow residents to cast their votes in the days leading up to the election, our state continues to deprive us of this uncontroversial, hugely convenient opportunity. Thanks to Republicans in the state Senate, and Governor Andrew Cuomo's deference toward them, our pre-Election Day activities mostly involve sitting on the sidelines, wondering whether the new tear-off ballots will lead to longer lines at our possibly brand new polling places—assuming, that is, the Board of Elections deigns to keep us on the voter rolls this year.

Perhaps you are thinking: Surely, there must be a not-quite-obvious justification for why New York has refused to join the vast majority of the country in making it easier for citizens to exercise their civic duty. There is not.

"There's no good reason, whatsoever, that New York does not have early voting," says Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause, a non-partisan good government group. While Lerner notes that opponents of the measure have raised concerns about added costs or complications, she points out that early voting has enjoyed widespread support and success pretty much everywhere it's been implemented. If those same politicians were really concerned about expensive, unnecessary confusion plaguing New York's elections, they'd probably be better off asking why we're the only state holding primaries on two separate days.

In addition to early voting, civic advocates—many of whom are part of the statewide coalition, Let NY Vote—have a range of other ideas for ridding the state of its designation as the worst places to vote in the country. Automatic voter registration would eliminate the burden of registration entirely, though even same day registration would represent a huge improvement (the state legislature could also easily move the deadline up by 15 days without a constitutional amendment). Also on the wish-list: Pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, less restrictions on absentee voting, and the elimination of the rules forcing New Yorkers who want to switch parties to do so many, many months in advance.

Should Democrats take the state Senate, they've promised to make reforming New York's retrograde voting laws one of their main priorities. For now, however, Lerner says that the state's hostility to making elections more accessible should be understood as a form of "soft voter suppression."

"One of the most foolproof ways to increase voter turnout is combo of early voting and same day registration," she told Gothamist. "If you're looking to suppress the vote [in other states], you're looking to restrict early voting and same day registration. Here in New York, we're already doing that."

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