New York’s Voter Turnout Is ‘Embarrassing.’ That Could Soon Change.

"The only reason to oppose these measures is a desire to suppress the vote. Anyone who opposes expanded opportunities to vote should be looked upon with great suspicion."

[Photo: People standing in line to vote.]
Less than 58 percent of the voting eligible population in New York cast a ballot in the 2016 election. Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

Advocates are making a concerted push for automatic voter registration in New York before the state budget is passed this month, arguing that it cleans up voter rolls, encourages electoral participation, and saves taxpayer money.

It is a part of the comprehensive election reform measures Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced in December to improve voting in a state that rates dismally in voter turnout. The measures include a push for early voting, same-day registration, and no-fault absentee ballots.

“The voting reform package proposed by the Governor should be a no-brainer. We should all want as many eligible voters to vote as possible and this reform proposal would be a vast improvement over the current system,” Geoff Berman, executive director of the New York State Democratic Committee, told Rewire.News.

The Democrats’ priorities include early voting—already in place in 34 states. Cuomo’s budget provides $7 million in state funding so local governments would not have to cover related costs.

The package also includes establishing voter registration locations at designated government offices, holding state and federal primaries on the same day, and reducing voter registration deadlines from 25 to 15 days for primaries and from 20 days to 10 days for general elections.

The New York effort comes amid myriad attacks on voting rights across the United States—from photo ID requirements to barriers to absentee voting. At least 28 bills have been introduced in 14 states this year to make it harder for citizens to vote. Many more have been carried over from last year. But the push to increase voting access is strong in 2018, with legislators introducing more than 200 bills across 30 states to make voting easier, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice.

Similar voter reform bills came up in New York in 2012 and 2015, but failed to pass in a state where a Republican-controlled Senate often blocks Democratic initiatives. With the budget expected to pass by March 31, advocates told Rewire.News that the time is right to make a push for it once again. From local legislators to advocacy groups, many took to social media this week to urge voting reform with the hashtag #LetNYVote.

Sponsored by state Senate Deputy Minority Leader Michael Gianaris (D-Queens), the voter registration bill S3304 would automatically register adult citizens in New York to vote when they sign up at designated government agencies like the departments of motor vehicle, taxation, and finance unless they chose to opt out.

A companion bill, S2478A, would eliminate the ten-day advance voter registration requirement and pave the way for same-day registration.

“At a time in our country when voting rights are under assault from all corners, New York must live up to its reputation as a progressive leader. Access to the ballot box should be easy and fair. I urge my colleagues to enact these proposals as soon as possible to remove obstacles to voting,” Gianaris said in an email.

The Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a breakaway faction of Democratic senators who have formed a coalition with the state senate’s Republican leadership, is also pushing for the election reforms. The IDC has helped stymie many progressive bills introduced by New York Democrats.

“Voter participation is integral to our democracy and the Independent Democratic Conference has prioritized voter and election reforms to increase participation. Blue and red states have already adopted policies like early voting, no-excuse absentee ballots and automatic voter registration, and we cannot leave New Yorkers behind on this bipartisan issue,” said state Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester), leader of the IDC.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) wrote an op-ed this month promoting voting reform, arguing that early voting is a women’s rights issue: “One hundred and seventy years ago, New York was a proud incubator for progressive ideas. Today, it is embarrassing that our voter turnout rate consistently ranks one of the lowest in the nation. With early voting and automatic voter registration, women will have a greater voice in electing our leaders and shaping the future for our children.”

The governor’s chief counsel, Alphonso David, told Rewire.News that Cuomo will support the legislation. His reforms mirror New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s proposals to boost voter participation in the state.

New York ranked 41st in the November 2016 election in voter turnout, with less than 58 percent of the voting eligible population casting a ballot. Many claim the biggest barrier to voting is the antiquated registration system. If the measure passes, New York will join nine other states and the District of Columbia in implementing automatic voter registration.

Washington is set to be the next state to automatically register citizens to vote at state agencies. The bill passed by Washington state’s Democratic-held house and state senate is headed to Gov. Jay Inslee’s (D) desk, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

In 2015, Oregon became the first to pass a law to automatically register eligible citizens who have driver’s licenses; West Virginia and Vermont followed suit in 2016 along with Georgia and D.C., according to the Brennan Center. In 2018, lawmakers in 15 states have introduced automatic registration proposals. Universal registration across the nation would increase accuracy, save money, and add up to 50 million eligible voters to the rolls, according to a 2015 Brennan Center report.

“Every citizen should have a fair and equal opportunity to get, and stay, registered to vote. Citizens must take the responsibility to vote, but government should do its part by clearing bureaucratic obstacles to the ballot box. Automatic voter registration would vastly improve American democracy,” the report states.

Besides early voting, Cuomo’s reform package includes a partner measure for no-excuse absentee voting, allowed by 27 states and the District of Columbia. New Yorkers can only vote before Election Day via absentee ballot if they meet certain requirements. If approved, voters would be able to cast ballots during the 12 days leading up to Election Day.

“Registering to vote should be easy and automatic when you sign up for other state services like a drivers license. And voting hours should reflect and respect the lives of the voters,” Berman said. “Parents, the elderly, people with disabilities, people with last minute emergencies—all of these groups would be more likely to vote if the election were held over multiple days and included no-fault absentee balloting. The only reason to oppose these measures is a desire to suppress the vote. Anyone who opposes expanded opportunities to vote should be looked upon with great suspicion.”