Governor Kathy Hochul said she is committed to funding democracy initiatives as part of her agenda in 2022, citing the ongoing assault on voting rights across the country.
Hochul told reporters Thursday that her administration would make sure New York leads on these issues in a way the state has failed to do in the past.
“I believe everyone should be able to vote by mail,” Hochul said, citing the successful model in Oregon where voters are automatically mailed a ballot. “That is a radical notion to some and to others it just makes sense,” she added, vowing to work with state partners to come up with a model for New York.
Hochul’s comments come as the fight to expand voting rights, defend democracy and overhaul the agencies that run elections in New York State are getting a renewed push from a growing coalition of civil rights, labor, good government, and local community organizations ahead of the new legislative session next month.
In a five-page letter to Hochul, State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, 67 organizations urged lawmakers to restart the constitutional amendment process to enact same-day voter registration and to allow for no-excuse absentee ballots, while also calling for full funding and support for a package of voting rights and campaign finance reform legislation.
“Despite our state’s progressive bona fides, we are not immune from the dangers of misinformation and vote suppression in our own communities,” the letter sent by the Brennan Center for Justice on behalf of the groups states. It makes explicit reference to the failure of two voting reform measures at the ballot box in November, thanks in part to a well-funded campaign led by state Republicans and Conservatives, and the failure of state Democrats to mount any coordinated response.
The letter was also timed to prompt state lawmakers who return to Albany on January 5th to make democracy an early and clear priority for the next session by showing them that support for these measures extends beyond the traditional good government advocates.
“We have a vested interest in encouraging, and seeing New York State as a leader when it comes to expansion of its electorate,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League — one of two national civil rights organizations based in New York City that signed on to the letter. The other is the National Action Network, which also joined the coalition.
“One way to fight back against voter suppression is to affirmatively promote voter expansion and access through state laws,” he added.
Morial emphasized there is nothing radical about the legislation the group is urging lawmakers to consider. Both of the failed ballot measures enjoyed strong support among Democrats in the months ahead of the vote, which proponents say is grounds for restarting the three-year constitutional amendment process.
To help improve New York’s voter turnout and make it easier to access the ballot, he cited the automatic voter registration law, which needs sufficient funding in the budget in order to be fully implemented by 2023. He also pointed to the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York, which would codify a series of protections including a state-level preclearance system to ensure changes in election administration do not discriminate against voters of color.
Brianna Cea, head of Generation Vote, an organization that promotes civic engagement among people who are 18 to 30, said her members felt democracy was under siege in an acute way while watching the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol unfold on social media on January 6th. Her organization signed on to support these voting initiatives in New York as a response.
“New York state is not immune from all of these threats to American democracy that we've seen, in states across the country, and these threats particularly affect voters of color and young people,” said Cea. She pointed to a recent study by Tufts University which found that states fully implementing laws like automatic voter registration saw higher youth voter turnout than those without it.
By comparison, the study found youth voter turnout in New Jersey, which already has automatic voter registration, was 65% for the 2020 general election compared to only 45 % in New York, which has not yet implemented the automatic voter registration law.
In addition to calling for funding and legislative changes, the letter also demands lawmakers consider overhauling the boards of elections. The Brennan Center for Justice has released two reports, one on how to fix the New York City Board of Elections and the other report on the New York State and other 57 local boards, that details how the agencies lack professional and modern systems and often struggle with insufficient staff and funding.
“That's not fair to voters who all have an equal right to vote across the state,” said Chisun Lee, deputy director of The Brennan Center's Election Reform Program.
But it’s not just an issue affecting voters. The overtly political BOE’s, which are controlled by teams of bipartisan commissioners selected by local party leaders, often require staff to complete mandatory overtime during election cycles and there are no clear rules that govern the agencies' hiring and promotion policies.
“There is a system that is based on political favors. That’s not what the Board of Elections should be,” said Luis Benitez-Burgos, a representative of the Communications Workers of America who works with Local 1183, the union that represents election workers in New York City. Benitez-Burgos said CWA signed on to the letter to encourage lawmakers to reform the agencies.
Changing the structure of the election agencies has gained increasing attention this year. State Senator Zellnor Myrie issued a report that also recommended overhauling and professionalizing how the boards are staffed and run.
Asked whether the state Senate and Assembly will take additional action on democracy issues this session, spokespeople for both legislative leaders pledged to discuss the matters with members when they return to session.
With additional reporting from Jon Campbell.