Gov. Kathy Hochul on Monday signed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York, which aims to prevent voter suppression or dilution based on race or language preference, at a ceremony in Brooklyn.
The signing coincides with Juneteenth, the federal holiday that commemorates the liberation of the last enslaved Africans two months after the end of the Civil War, and more than two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The law, named for the late civil rights icon, is the latest in a growing trend of states enacting voting rights protections as federal lawmakers remain gridlocked in Washington, D.C.
“As always, when the federal government fails to act, you can count on New York to punch back and fight even harder,” Hochul said, adding, “No state in the nation has stood up with the courage and the conviction and the power that we have by protecting these important rights.”
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who also spoke at the event, recalled her razor-thin loss in 2004 to a Republican opponent who succeeded in having votes tossed on based on what some criticized as technicalities. It was her first Senate race.
“I’m talking about Yonkers,” she said, referring to her district. She added: “As we do this, I want you to know that New York state is an example of even some of these things that we’ve seen in the deepest, deepest south.”
The bill was signed on the campus of Medgar Evers College, a City University of New York campus named in honor of the NAACP stalwart who was assassinated outside his home in Mississippi by a white supremacist on June 12th, 1963.
Advocates began celebrating the signing as early as Friday, when word of the bill signing began to spread among its supporters.
“I’m ecstatic, over the moon,” said L. Joy Williams, head of the Brooklyn chapter of the NAACP, and an outspoken champion of the legislation. Williams praised the collaboration among dozens of civil rights organizations that came together to put pressure on Albany to act before the end of the legislative session.
Williams offered explicit praise for the bill’s sponsors in the legislature, state Sen. Zellnor Myrie and Assemblymember Latrice Walker, who are also members of the Brooklyn NAACP. She also praised Hochul for making good on a promise she made in her first State of the State proposal in January.
The legislation passed both chambers in the final week of the legislative session in party line votes. Among its provisions, it prohibits local election administrators from taking actions that could suppress votes based on race; for instance reducing the number of poll sites in a jurisdiction with voters of color. It also requires election administrators in jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to seek pre-clearance, an authorization before the change is made, from the state attorney general’s office or a local court.
Pre-clearance was at the heart of the Federal Voting Rights Act since its passage in 1965 until 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that the formula used to determine which jurisdictions would be subject to the provision was unconstitutional.
New York has seen instances of voter suppression across the state. Assemblymember Crystal People-Stokes recalled the 2005 election in her hometown of Buffalo when residents elected Byron Brown, the city's first Black mayor. Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes shared the story of what happened when voters in her hometown of Buffalo elected the city’s first Black mayor, Byron Brown, back in 2005.
“Somehow the places that used to have four voting machines only ended up with two,” she said from the Assembly floor, when she cast her vote during the final week of the legislative session in favor of the bill. People-Stokes said the impact of fewer voting machines led voters, notably in communities of color “to wait in line longer.”
In a study examining voter wait times during the 2018 midterm elections, the Brennan Center for Justice found that Black and Latino voters were more likely to wait more than 30 minutes to cast their ballot, exceeding federally established thresholds for acceptable wait times. Some 6.6% of Latino voters and 7% of Black voters reported waiting for longer than half-an-hour to vote on Election Day, as compared to just 4.4% of white voters.
The law was supposed to have included a provision that would establish a statewide database of voting and election information including results for every election in the state, voter registration data, maps, poll site lists, redistricting plans and more. That provision was spun off into a separate bill that passed the Senate but was not taken up in the Assembly.
Still, advocates have been cautiously celebrating the passage of the remainder of the bill since the first week of June when it made it through both chambers.
“The legislature has passed the strongest and most comprehensive state voting rights act to date,” said Perry Grossman, a voting rights attorney with the NYCLU. But he also stressed that advocates for voting rights had not reached the finish line yet, since portions of the law will not be enacted until July 2023 and beyond.
That year-long lag time opens the door for potential amendments that could weaken the bill’s oversight, according to advocates. During the Assembly vote, several of the Republican members who spoke out against it argued that school board elections should not be covered by the legislation.
Grossman said advocates planned to remain focused until the law was fully in effect.
“We will all be watching vigilantly to make sure this bill is not watered down,” Grossman said.
Advocates across the country said New York’s adoption of its own voting rights could serve as a roadmap for other states. California, Washington, Oregon and Virginia already have their own voting rights acts. Connecticut proposed similar legislation, but it did not pass this session.
“Certainly Congress needs to respond to the crisis we have in our democracy,” said Adam Lioz, senior policy counsel with the Legal Defense Fund. “At the same time, states can take this into their own hands and protect their own voters.”
Elizabeth Kim contributed to this report.
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that Juneteenth commemorates the liberation of enslaved people two months after the end of the Civil War and more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.