New York makes moves against restrictive voting laws

Voters waited in long lines to cast their vote.
Voters waited in long lines to cast their vote.
Mark Lennihan/AP/Shutterstock.
Voters waited in long lines to cast their vote.

New York makes moves against restrictive voting laws

Democratic lawmakers say newly-passed laws are just the beginning.
January 14, 2019

In an ideal world, all eligible voters would be able to cast a ballot without much trouble. Young people would pre-register to vote before they turn 18 and any citizen who got a driver’s license would get on the voting rolls automatically. Election Day would be a public holiday and polls would be open for days beforehand to accommodate early voting. No excuses would be necessary for anyone who wanted to cast an absentee ballot by mail, and even more people would be able to recover their right to vote after they paid their dues to society for whatever crime they had committed. Such a world would embody the idea that the more people vote, the stronger a democracy can be.

For many years, such a world seemed far away for New Yorkers, as a Republican-controlled state Senate kept many voting reforms from passing. But Democrats are in the midst of a long-awaited push for voting reforms now that they control the state Senate – and they are moving fast to boost the state’s national standing on voting access.

It will take time to transform New York into a national leader on voting access, but state lawmakers voted on Monday to make a big leap forward on the issue. Both houses of the state Legislature passed bills that will making voting easier statewide. These include combining state and federal primaries into one day, implementing early voting, making it easier for voters to re-register when they move to the state, and allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote. While other efforts require constitutional amendments in order to take effect, the experience of other states illustrates the higher voter turnout that New York might get once changes like same-day registration and no-excuse absentee voting take effect – assuming that the latter two proposed constitutional amendments pass the next Legislature and are approved by voters in subsequent referenda. A bill to close the LLC loophole was also included in the batch of bills passed by the Legislature on Monday.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not immediately sign the newly-passed bills, but has signalled his support for the legislation, which would take effect in the next round of elections after they become law. By passing the bills on just the second day in session, the new Democratic majorities in the state Assembly and Senate are making good on campaign promises, but it will take more effort to transform New York into a state where voters can cast a ballot as easily as anywhere else. “It’s a big deal for the Legislature and the governor to sign these new laws,” said John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany. “But you’re not going to ses a transformation of New York in one year or two years, or even three years.”

Depending on the metrics, New York is either one of the worst or simply mediocre when it comes to voting access. It is among a dozen or so states that lack early voting and no-excuses absentee balloting, and it is the only state that schedules separate primaries for state and federal elections. New York is also among the two-thirds of states that do not automatically register voters. A September 2018 study ranked New York as the 26th easiest state to vote in. In presidential election years, New York has voter turnout nearing 60 percent, comparable to states such as Mississippi and Indiana. In contrast, a high-turnout state like Oregon can have turnout in excess of 70 percent for a presidential election.

In the past two decades, Oregon has taken several steps to become one of the most voter-friendly states. This includes becoming the first state to implement all-mail ballots – which made early voting unnecessary – and automatic voter registration. Following these changes, however, turnout has still remained more or less the same. While early voting has been championed as a way to boost turnout, its effect is still not fully understood. Minnesota, for example, allows early voting as far as 46 days before election day and turnout was an impressive 75 percent in the 2016 election.

But not every state with early voting can boast that it has resulted in high turnout. States like Kansas, Alaska, Ohio and Florida all have early voting but relatively low turnouts – though it should be noted that voters turned out at higher rates in all four states in 2018 compared to New York. Hawaii has early voting and other voter-friendly laws, but low turnout.

It’s clear that more research is needed to determine how voting laws influence turnout, according to Sean Morales-Doyle, counsel of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “There is not a lot of research that shows increased turnout with early voting,” he said. Consolidating the state and federal primaries though, will likely have a “significant effect” on turnout because it lessens the inconvenience and confusion associated with having two different primary days, he added.

Though some Republicans voted for the proposed reforms on Monday, much of the blame for New York's antiquated voting laws has fallen on the state Senate Republicans, who blocked efforts to pass similar bills in recent years. If the assumption is that low-income and younger people tend to vote Democratic, then the Republicans at the time were protecting their own political interest by maintaining the electoral status quo. But voting access can just as easily be seen as an incumbency issue rather than strictly partisan concern, according to Morales-Doyle. “Rather than being based on any data or study,” he said, “some of this is just ‘this is the system that got me here and I don’t want to mess with it.’”

With 17 new state senators, the New York Legislature has had a unique opportunity to overcome such reluctance, and Democratic lawmakers made sure to note on Monday that they intend to introduce additional legislation to further loosen voting restrictions. These could include making Election Day a public holiday, restoring voting rights for parolees, automatic voter registration – or New York could opt to join North Dakota in not requiring voter registration at all – and technical changes like better ballot design and implementing the use of “electronic poll books” to make it easier to verify voter registration data in real time. State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said at a Monday press conference in the state Capitol that the latest bills were just a “first step” in reforming voting laws.

She added that Cuomo included $7 million in last year’s budget proposal to fund early voting, money that she expects the governor will include in his budget proposal to be released on Tuesday. “Easing access to voting and having New Yorkers exercise their constitutional right to have their voices heard shouldn’t be partisan or controversial,” she said. “Other states have taken the lead on issues like early voting, same-day registration, pre-registration, and no-excuse absentee voting. It is time for New York state to catch up, so we can once again lead the way forward.”

Only time will tell how much the recently-passed voting reforms will boost turnout, but the new legislation is not the only way that New York appears poised to move up the ranks of voter-friendly states. While some states like New York have moved to make voting easier, others are making it harder, perhaps to deliberately depress turnout – through new laws that require voters to show an ID when they vote. New York may have been slow to change the status quo until now, but the latest moves by the state Legislature show that the state is moving towards increased voter access.

“You’re really seeing states going two different directions on this and it looks like New York this week has a chance to join the positive group,” said Morales-Doyle. “The fact that the Legislature is doing what they’re going to do this week signals that maybe it’s a new day in Albany.”

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State and its sister publication, New York Nonprofit Media.
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