Automatic voter registration would ease NY's problems at the polls

People fill out ballots during primary election voting in New York City on Sept. 13.
People fill out ballots during primary election voting in New York City on Sept. 13.
JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
People fill out ballots during primary election voting in New York City on Sept. 13.

Automatic voter registration would ease NY's problems at the polls

The embarrassing spectacle of regular voters bounced from the rolls has to stop.
September 16, 2018

Last week’s elections showed once again the travesty of New York’s voting system, with widespread reports of people who had voted for years at their polling place being turned away from the polls because they were inexplicably purged from the rolls. Despite voting for every Democratic presidential candidate since 1988 and having a huge Democratic registration advantage, the state still lags behind many purple and even red states on voting rights. Indeed some red states cite New York’s antiquated voting laws as an excuse for their suppression.

If New York wants to be a progressive model for the country, its voting laws should reflect that reality. That’s why it’s time to pass automatic voter registration. Automatic voter registration has been implemented across the country with bipartisan majorities in states like Alaska (through a ballot initiative), Maryland, Rhode Island and Massachusetts (where a comprehensive bill was signed by a Republican governor in response to grass-roots activism).

Automatic voter registration is a simple idea. Rather than putting the burden of voter registration on individuals, the government should do it. This allows the government to create clean, reliable and secure voter rolls and also expands access to the ballot. When individuals interact with a public agency (such as a DMV or health care exchange) the government has all the relevant information to add them to the voter rolls or update their address. The government checks to ensure the individual is eligible, sends them a letter indicating they will be registered unless they opt out and adds them to the rolls. Instead of relying on voters to update their registration when they move, it would happen automatically. This would eliminate a major source of the problems that occurred on Thursday, in which many voters went to their new polling place and were told they were still registered at their old location, sometimes hours away. There would also be no need for an overreaching purge of outdated voter rolls, as was undertaken in Brooklyn a couple of years ago – and which caused massive disenfranchisement. As a backstop, Democrats also need same-day registration, which would ensure that anyone who was not registered automatically could still register at the polls.

If this process instead is done on the back end by the government every time someone gives a new address, it will avoid not only disenfranchisement but also its opposite – people who mistakenly register to vote, not knowing they are ineligible (for example, because they are a green card holder).

It’s also important that as more agencies build up the capacity for automatic voter registration, the law expands to include them. The reason is simple: Many people don’t interact with the DMV, and these are disproportionately the people who are most likely to be under-represented in the electorate.

The political will is there. According to polling that is part of Data for Progress’ New Progressive Agenda Project, 53 percent of likely voters in New York support automatic voter registration, with only 32 percent opposed (the rest undecided). National surveys also paint a picture of a popular policy. And the base wants it. My polling of progressive influencers with Matt McDermott (the type of people who canvass and contact representatives) suggests that they place automatic voter registration as a top priority.

And the results of the recent primaries show the base is there. Just last week, six IDC members were unseated by challengers, most of them progressives and first-time candidates. Meanwhile, challengers for statewide offices fell short but exceeded expectations. If the Democratic establishment wants to mollify their restive base, automatic voter registration would be one good way of doing so.

The need is there as well. In addition to those who have been purged, millions of New Yorkers are unregistered. Studies suggest that millions of Americans are disenfranchised by registration deadlines. That makes sense. Most of us don’t buy a Mother’s Day gift until the last minute, and if we procrastinate on that, it’s not surprising that millions of people become engaged to vote after the 30-day registration deadline in New York. These registration barriers disproportionately disenfranchise under-represented voters such as lower-income citizens, young people and people of color.

The elections last week showed the dysfunction of New York’s election system and the hunger for democratic change. Let’s make it the last election run on that archaic system. We need automatic voter registration now.

Sean McElwee
is a policy analyst and writer based in New York City.
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