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Ask A Reporter: What Can We Do About New York's Abysmal Voting Laws?

A poll site in South Williamsburg on the morning of New York's September 13th primary.
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A poll site in South Williamsburg on the morning of New York's September 13th primary. John Del Signore / Gothamist

Ask a Reporter is an occasional series about civic engagement in and around the city. Do you have a question about how you can make a difference in your neighborhood, city or state? What about voting, the elections or navigating civic life in New York? Ask us! We want to help you get involved by answering your questions.

Q: How can we advocate for voting reforms in New York?

A: So you’ve noticed New York’s election laws are dismally restrictive and based on 19th century legislation. You’re not the only ones.

States actually working to constrain voting have pointed to New York’s outdated rules for cover. When asked in 2016 about Ohio curtailing its early voting period, Governor John Kasich, in an interview on MSNBC, said, “Why don’t you go pick on New York?”

An attorney for the state of North Carolina cited New York’s lack of early voting in opening arguments for North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP v. McCrory. This is the case where the NAACP stepped in to sue over cuts to early voting; eliminating pre-registration for young people before turning 18; and same-day registration, among other changes. This package of legislation, of course, was ultimately found to be discriminatory.

But New York doesn’t even have progressive voting laws to curtail. And advocates, along with lawmakers pushing for change, note that such restrictive and outdated voting practices lead to problems such as inappropriate voter purges; voters not appearing on the rolls and other Election Day confusion.

“People who've only voted in New York think all the elections across the country are the same craziness,” said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause New York. “They are not.”

Here are just some of the ways that advocates say New York is behind in voting:

  • No early voting (37 states — the large majority — have some form of early voting)
  • No same-day registration
  • No automatic voter registration, which ensures that eligible voters are indeed registered
  • Restrictive protocol for getting an absentee ballot: you need to provide a reason for not being able to make it to the polls
  • No ability to pre-register 16- and 17-year-olds
  • Separate state and federal primaries — the only state to have two
  • The staggering length of time required to change party affiliation before voting in a primary (nearly a year in advance)

Not to mention, New York City’s procedures for maintaining voter rolls are outdated, a problem highlighted by the legal settlement following the 2016 Brooklyn voter purge.

“You combine all those problems together — problems with getting on the rolls, problems with staying on the rolls, problems with turning out to the elections — it's no wonder that New York has such low turnout rates,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, legal counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU.

Morales-Doyle this month co-authored a piece for The Atlantic on New York’s dire situation when it comes to voting. He noted that New York ranked 41st in voter turnout in the 2016 presidential election. Turnout is worse in midterm elections and primaries, though turnout was markedly higher for the most recent primary in September.

New York’s voting laws are controlled by New York’s lawmakers, of course. And while they must be the ones to enact change, Morales-Doyle and Lerner say people must push them in that direction.

“Sometimes people roll their eyes at it, but I do think that it is a real thing: There is a real impact made by contacting your elected representatives and letting them know how much of an issue this is for you,” Morales-Doyle said.

Lerner said lawmakers resist change by insisting it’s just advocacy groups who want it.

“People in New York have become a little too cynical and they're not pushing hard enough,” she said. “So your elected representative needs to hear from you that you think that this is absolutely unacceptable.”

Lerner suggests the first question should be, “Why the hell are we paying for two primaries?”

Common Cause New York and the Brennan Center are part of a coalition called Let New York Vote, which aims to update New York’s election laws. Their website walks you through the process of finding and contacting your representative. (Don’t forget the governor, too.)

It’s important to note that voting reforms do have supporters in Albany.

Democratic state Senators introduced the Voter Empowerment Act once again in January of this year. The bill calls for automatic voter registration, pre-registering 16- and 17-year-olds and easing the burdensome deadlines for registering and changing party affiliations.

Another Senate bill seeks to establish early voting, and Governor Cuomo, during the last budget cycle, introduced a budget amendment that would fund it.

But while voting reform bills have sailed through the Assembly, they’ve only stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Michael Gianaris, a senator from Queens and author of the Voter Empower Act, puts the blame on his Republican colleagues.

“As long as the Republicans are in charge of the Senate, they have an interest in keeping people from voting because the more people vote the worse they do in the elections,” Gianaris said. “And at every turn, they have stood in the way of efforts to make it easier for people to vote, easier for people to register.”

Voting reform should be a bipartisan issue, Gianaris said, but it’s not in New York.

The chair of the Senate Elections Committee, Fred Akshar, a Republican from the Southern Tier of New York, supports some changes to the state’s election laws, including making voting by absentee ballot less burdensome. A spokesman said Akshar was “open minded” about early voting, but had concerns about cost.

But the bills to modernize New York’s election laws have not had a full airing in the Senate, because they have not been brought to the floor for a vote. It’s up to Majority Leader John Flanagan to make those decisions.

Flanagan did not return multiple requests for comment.

Brian Kavanagh, the ranking Democrat on the Elections Committee, and sponsor of the early voting bill, said Democrats are prepared to make voting changes should they take control of the chamber in November.

“I want it to be the first thing we do next year, and voters should demand this of their representatives.”

Hear Yasmeen Khan and Richard Hake talk about voting in New York on WNYC.

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