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'Typo' Delays Passage Of Automatic Voter Registration After Historic Session For Voting Rights

Dashed Arrow Scott Lynch/Gothamist

Automatic voter registration, a key piece of voting rights legislation intended to enroll more than one million eligible voters across New York State, was pulled from the Assembly floor late Thursday night with a vow that a previously passed version in the Senate would be recalled as well.

The culprit? Something legislative leaders from both chambers called a “significant technical issue” that could have registered non-citizens to vote.

In a joint statement, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said the Senate would recall the Automatic Voter Registration Act and introduce a corrected version which would be voted on next session, in 2020. The delay would not affect the timeline for implementation, they said.

The bill was intended to create a system where state agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles, State Board of Elections and Department of Social Services would automatically register a person to vote when they complete forms for the agency—unless they specifically check a box declining to be registered.

As lawmakers sped through the waning days of this legislative session, language was mistakenly added to the automatic voter registration bill that conveyed confusing information about who should check the opt-out box. There are possible criminal penalties if a non-citizen knowingly registers and votes in an election.

Republican lawmakers blasted the measure for its “outrageous flaws” which they said could have threatened election integrity.

“While Assembly and Senate leadership have now pulled the bill citing a ‘significant technical issue,’ we are deeply disturbed that the Senate passed this bill and Assembly Democrats planned on bringing this to a vote up until we spoke out,” Republican Assemblymembers Nicole Malliotakis (Brooklyn, Staten Island) and Colin Schmitt (Ref-New Windsor) wrote in a statement.

But a coalition of election reform advocates sought to put a better spin on the fallout from the typo. The more than 175 groups in the #LetNYVote coalition pointed to the commitment Stewart-Cousins and Heastie made in their statement to introduce a corrected version of the legislation next session with the same implementation date of 2021.

Currently 16 states and the District of Columbia have some form of automatic voter registration. Advocates said the legislation proposed for New York would have been the nation’s most expansive version of the law because it requires more state agencies to register voters.

“This really has been a historic session,” said Susan Lerner, head of Common Cause NY and a co-chair of the #LetNYVote coalition. “And the idea that [lawmakers] began and ended with democracy reforms, I think it's just an extraordinary statement,” she added.

Altogether, both houses of the legislature passed nearly 50 pieces of legislation related to voting in this session including sweeping, systemic changes to how elections are run across the state to smaller technical changes that modernize the state election law and make the procedures more uniform across the state.

It started on the first day of session when lawmakers, led by newly empowered Democratic majorities, pushed through a package of laws designed to make it easier for people to vote.

Among the most significant changes, lawmakers consolidated all primary elections in June and passed a law establishing early voting, which allows voters to cast their ballot nine days ahead of Election Day. New York was one of only 12 states without some form of this policy.

The lawmakers also gave first passage to two constitutional amendments—same-day voter registration and vote-by-mail legislation, also known as no-excuse absentee balloting. Those measures need to pass a subsequent legislative session before voters decide to accept or reject the amendments.

Other key legislation that passed this session includes the pre-enrollment of 16 and 17-year-old voters. The state also passed a law creating an online voter registration system which will launch by 2021 that would enable anyone to register online. Currently, only people with accounts through the Department of Motor Vehicles are eligible to use the system through their website.

Lawmakers also passed a measure that will make the poll site hours uniform across the state. Until now, voters in upstate New York needed to wait until noon for their poll sites to open during a primary election. The legislation requires poll sites statewide to be open from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m., as they are in New York City.

During the budget process, lawmakers included funding to help counties offset the cost of opening their polls ahead of Election Day and to pay for electronic poll books, which enables counties to run elections at the early voting sites.

As the session was coming to a close, lawmakers were still bringing voting legislation to the floor. One was a bill that changed the deadline for party enrollment from the October ahead of the general election (i.e. a year before a person would cast their vote), to February 14 the year of the primary.

Negotiations over automatic voter registration dragged on throughout the session until it finally was laid to rest on Thursday night.

“It’s unfortunate that the bill died at the last minute due to a typo that should have been resolved,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, counsel on the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice and a vocal proponent of the legislation. But he echoed the optimism of the bill’s proponents about the leadership's commitment to its passage next session.

“The fact is that before this session, New York lagged behind on almost all voter registration laws,” said Morales-Doyle. “Now New York has caught up.”

Brigid Bergin is the City Hall and politics reporter for WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @brigidbergin.

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