Voters across New York State will have the chance to fundamentally expand voting access this fall when two state constitutional amendments appear on the ballot: one would establish same-day voter registration and the other would allow for no-excuse absentee ballots.
The November referendums are the final step, according to state law, to amending the constitution. They follow the passage by the New York State Assembly on Tuesday of both resolutions, for the second time. The State Senate also approved the proposals twice in consecutive sessions.
Voting-rights advocates said the significance of these proposed constitutional changes was hard to overstate. Since 2015, voters in New York City faced an illegal voter purge that removed more than 200,000 voters from the rolls. By enacting same-day voter registration, many of the problems that typically prevent a person from legally being able to cast a ballot because of registration issues could be eliminated.
“If they were knocked off the rolls for some reason, if they didn't realize they hadn't reregistered when they moved, all kinds of issues. If you can just get registered while you're standing there in the polling place, all of those fall by the wayside,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director of the Voting Rights, Elections and Democracy project at the Brennan Center for Justice, which has been pushing for both reforms.
Assemblymember Robert Carroll, who sponsored the same-day voter registration resolution, said state officials were sending a message to other parts of the country. “As other states are restricting voting, New York should lead by example and make sure that we correct some of our antiquated laws,” Carroll told Gothamist/WNYC.
Currently 20 other states and the District of Columbia have same-day registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The second change, allowing for no-excuse absentee ballots, would enable people to vote by mail without needing a justification. Currently, people applying for absentee ballots need to cite a reason why they cannot appear at a poll site. Those excuses were expanded temporarily to include the risk of Covid-19 exposure for the upcoming June primary and November general election. If voters approve this resolution, no explanation would be required in the future.
These changes are among the final measures advocated for by the Let NY Vote coalition, which was formed in 2017 to push for an overhaul in the state’s election laws. The group, which includes 175 member organizations across the state, has pushed for early voting, automatic voter registration, and the restoration of voting rights for people who were formerly incarcerated.
The coalition received a boost when Democrats took control of the Senate in 2019 and made expanding voting rights a priority at the very start of their session.
"For close to four years, Let NY Vote has fought for the expansion of voting rights in New York. We are sending a powerful message to the rest of the country at a time when voting rights are under attack in other states,” Sarah Goff, deputy director of Common Cause NY said in a statement, thanking lawmakers for enacting so much of their agenda. “Our work is not done, but right now, it is a little bit easier to vote in New York.”
On the same day the New York Assembly took action on these pieces of legislation, Governor Doug Doucey of Arizona signed a bill that reduced the number of voters permanently eligible for early voting in the state. Analysis by the Brennan Center from March of this year found that 361 bills that would limit voting rights had been introduced in 47 states.
On Wednesday, after Republican House members voted to oust Congressmember Liz Cheney of Wyoming from her position as conference chair, the number three leadership post, for repeatedly calling out former President Donald Trump for lying about election improprieties without evidence, Representative Bill Pascrell of New Jersey condemned Cheney’s ousting and issued a statement warning that voter suppression is part of the Republican playbook.
“With Republicans offering over 350 bills across the country to suppress voting and rig elections, we are witnessing a threat to U.S. democracy unmatched since 1860. Americans must know what is before us. Congress must enact H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act this year before it is too late,” Pascrell said in a statement
The House passed the H.R. 1, also known as the For the People Act, in March. The legislation aims to modernize voting and enact at the federal level some of the same changes that New York has adopted or is considering at the state level, including early voting, automatic voter registration, and same-day voter registration.The legislation is expected to face steeper hurdles in the U.S. Senate.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, named after the late Georgia congressman and civil rights icon, would restore an element of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, requiring certain jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to seek approval from the Justice Department before making changes to how they run elections. Before a Supreme Court decision struck down the preclearance formula in 2013, three New York counties were covered by the requirement: Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx.