Governor Andrew Cuomo gave a holiday present to voting rights advocates on Tuesday signing the state’s first automatic voter registration (AVR) bill into law. Now eligible voters will automatically be registered when they interact with multiple state and city agencies that already collect the information required by the State Board of Elections.
New York now joins 18 other states plus the District of Columbia with a policy that makes AVR the default option, requiring people who are eligible to vote to opt out if they do not want to register, instead of opting in.
“The establishment of automatic voter registration is a profound reform to our election laws,” the bill’s lead State Senate sponsor, Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris, told Gothamist/WNYC, noting there are more than a million eligible voters in the state who are currently unregistered that will be added to the rolls because of this law, which takes effect starting in 2023.
Assemblymember Latrice Walker, who carried the bill in that chamber, said AVR put the state on the right side of history, “by acknowledging years of voter suppression and making the process to register to vote easy, and accessible to New Yorkers. I along with the other members of the legislature will continue to fight for the fundamental rights that keep our democracy alive. Voting should be easy, efficient, and accessible.”
A version of this bill has been introduced in every session since 2015 but has consistently faced opposition from Senate Republicans, who argued the reform was a partisan attempt to strengthen Democrats in elections. When Democrats took control of both legislative chambers at the start of the most recent two-year session, they made election reform a top priority, passing major reforms like early voting in the first days of 2019.
That year, an AVR bill was withdrawn after lawmakers found what they described as a “significant technical error” in the bill language that could have inadvertently allowed noncitizens to register to vote. The wording was corrected and the bill passed the legislature this summer.
Republicans had also argued that this system could lead to voter fraud since it allows agencies to submit information to the Board of Elections electronically with or without a person’s written signature. But the law also includes a requirement that the BOE send a form to the voter within ten days requesting their signature, or the person will only be able to submit an affidavit ballot during an election.
The agencies covered by the law include the Department of Motor Vehicles; Department of Health; the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance; Department of Labor; Office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities; county and city Departments of Social Services, and the New York City Housing Authority.
“Now, folks interacting with those agencies will be told, ‘we're going to use your information to register to vote unless you decline or opt out,’ and that small switch from an opt-in to an opt-out has been proven to have a really big impact, because people tend to go with the flow,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, Deputy Director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “They take the default option,” he added.
The Brennan Center conducted a study of states with automatic voter registration ahead of the 2018 elections. They found that controlling for other factors, states with AVR saw their day-to-day registration rates increase from 9% to 94%, with increases occurring in small and large states regardless of partisan leaning.
Advocates who have long pushed for the change celebrated the signing on Twitter.
With the start of the next legislative session fast approaching in January, Democratic lawmakers have already signaled they intend to continue to push for more reform of the state’s election law, with bills to speed the counting of absentee ballots, expand the number of early voting sites and an oversight hearing to examine the structure and function of the State Board of Elections and its local counterparts expected early next year.