New York lawmakers marked the first anniversary of insurrectionists storming the nation’s Capitol over false claims the presidential election was stolen by calling for further changes to state law to better safeguard voting rights and elections in the state.
At a rally in Grand Army Plaza near Prospect Park, state Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon gestured to the looming Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch just behind the small crowd gathered, assuring them that voting rights will be preserved.
“This arch is dedicated to the defenders of the union,” she said. “We are the defenders of our union of this time. And we will be with you to ensure that your right to vote is never abridged in New York State.”
The chairs of state Senate and state Assembly’s election committees, state Senator Zellnor Myrie and state Assemblymember Latrice Walker, both from Brooklyn, promised to push further reforms on the state level in the face of federal gridlock and the defeat of two state electoral reforms at the ballot box in November.
They pointed to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s State of the State proposals released Wednesday, which included support of a state-level voting rights act, expanding poll sites to college campuses and changing state law so New Yorkers can register to vote 10 days before an election, as opposed to 25 under current law.
“This is not a drill. It is not a game. Our democracy is on the line,” Myrie warned at Thursday’s rally, just hours after President Joe Biden, in a televised address, said the Capitol rioters "held a dagger at the throat" of American democracy.
“They are slow-cooking our democracy right before our very eyes. And if we do not wake up and go on offense … we will be commemorating the fall of our democracy,” Myrie added.
He is the lead sponsor of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York, which was introduced a year ago and named after the late congressman and civil rights icon. It would require certain election jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to seek approval from the state attorney general’s office or certain state courts before making changes to election procedures. The so-called “pre-clearance” requirement previously fell to the U.S. Department of Justice until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that portion of the federal Voting Rights Act in 2013.
“We have unfinished business here in the state of New York,” said Joan Bakiriddin, with the Brooklyn chapter of the NAACP. “The New York voting rights act ensures the law stands on the side of the voter, strengthens laws to prevent voter intimidation and ensures that, no matter the language a voter speaks or reads, they have the tools necessary to participate in the Democratic franchise.”
While certain electoral reforms may be buoyed by Hochul’s support during the budget process this spring, others were quashed last fall, when voters across the state rejected two ballot measures that would have allowed same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee ballots. The proposals’ defeat followed a more than $2.5 million attack campaign mounted by the New York State Conservative Party, and bankrolled by billionaire Ronald Lauder, heir of the Estée Lauder cosmetics corporation.
“Don't forget just last November two voter friendly constitutional amendments, both went down in a blaze of misinformation and dark money. And the billionaire who funded the opposition said this week, of all weeks, that he's ready for round two,” Myrie said, at Thursday’s rally, a reference to Lauder.
The New York Post reported recently that Lauder launched a new super PAC to target attack ads against Hochul’s nascent pledge to push for a universal vote-by-mail system, modeled on what’s been used for decades in Oregon. Just weeks after raising the idea, Hochul, who is running for a full-term as governor this year, made no mention of the Oregon model in her State of the State plan.
She did urge the state legislature to restart the three-year constitutional amendment process for no-excuse absentee ballots and same-day voter registration, the measures that failed in November. In the interim, she urged the state legislature to reduce the voter registration cut-off from 25 to 10 days before an election, a change that does not require altering the state constitution.
Lawmakers are expected to pass a series of election reform measures early next week, as they have at the start of each session since 2019.
One issue noticeably left out of their priorities so far is any effort to overhaul the scandal-scarred election boards across the state, including New York City's. That’s despite the chaotic performance of the city BOE last summer when it erroneously released inaccurate preliminary ranked-choice primary results.
Asked about reforms to the State Board of Elections, Myrie pointed to the report his office released on behalf of the State Senate Elections Committee last November, after spending the summer holding committee hearings across the state to hear from voters and elections workers about their experiences at the polls. Myrie said he was looking forward to discussing the report’s findings with other lawmakers.
“[The board of elections] is the infrastructure on which the rest of the democracy is built. That is the interaction that most voters have with the poll worker or with their local board of elections,” he said. “We have to make sure that they are delivering the best democracy possible.”
Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized how the governor addressed mail-in voting in her State of the State plan.