Which electoral reforms would make the biggest difference?

A voting box with the words "election reform"
A voting box with the words "election reform"
Illustration by Guillaume Federighi/City & State

Which electoral reforms would make the biggest difference?

Ranking New York's potential reforms, from most to least effective
March 12, 2018

Gov. Andrew Cuomo warmed the hearts of voting rights experts and advocates across the state recently when he included a series of proposals for reforming New York’s outdated election laws in his State of the State agenda. While many of Cuomo’s proposals respond to apparent Russian hacking efforts in the 2016 election with measures to beef up cybersecurity and improve transparency in online political advertising, Cuomo also threw his support behind a laundry list of policies that could boost New York’s paltry voter turnout: same-day voter registration, automatic voter registration and early voting.

Electoral reform in the Empire State is long overdue, according to good government advocates. “New York is one of the worst states in the union for voter suppression, but it’s supposed to be one of the most liberal,” said Matt Cowherd, former president of New Kings Democrats, a Brooklyn-based grass-roots progressive group.

It is remarkably difficult to vote in New York, where elections are restricted to hours that overlap almost precisely with a standard workday. That disenfranchises many workers with long shifts, such as cab drivers and home health aides, and single parents who must go directly home from work to care for their children.

Thirty-four states and Washington, D.C., have early voting, which permits voters to cast their ballots in the week or two before Election Day, but New York doesn’t.

New York’s nominal solution for those who cannot vote on Election Day is voting by absentee ballot, but New York City’s notoriously incompetent Board of Elections cannot even be counted on to deliver absentee ballots to those who request them. (In 2000, when I was in college, which was a two-hour drive away, I requested my New York absentee ballot twice and it never came. A friend got his two weeks after the election.) New York also has among the earliest deadlines for people to register to vote and change their party registration before an election.

All of these impediments take a toll on turnout: New York state’s was the 11th-lowest in 2016.

If Cuomo and the state Legislature want to expand voting access and enable more participation, some reforms will work better than others, voting rights experts said. And history suggests that not all of Cuomo’s ideas will make it into law any time soon.

Based on what experts said data has shown in other states, below is a ranking of potential reforms – from most to least effective – at increasing the size and diversity of the electorate.

Election Day registration

Being able to show up at a polling place on Election Day, register then and there, and vote is the single most effective means of boosting turnout, according to experts. Professors from New York University and American University have found that Election Day registration leads to a 3 percentage point increase in turnout, on average. I myself was saved from disenfranchisement by same-day registration in 2000 because it was available in Connecticut, where I attended college. Students are just one group that may move frequently – and so do other young people and poor people. In New York, there is no way to legally vote if you happen to move between the registration deadline and Election Day. Anyone who moves between elections and neglects to update their registration to their current address is also unable to vote. “Same-day registration is the one reform that’s consistently proven to have an impact on turnout,” said Tova Wang, senior democracy fellow at Demos, a nonpartisan, New York City-based think tank. “People are highly mobile, especially certain groups, and the deadlines are ridiculously early in a lot of states. There are people who don’t know there are deadlines or don’t know they have to register.” A 2015 study found that many Americans did internet searches on how to register to vote after their state deadline had passed.

Automatic voter registration

The precise details can vary by state, but automatic voter registration means that any time a person interacts with a state agency, and presents evidence that they are eligible to vote, that person is automatically registered to vote. That means if you bring your Social Security card when you get your driver’s license, you will be registered to vote. Oregon was the first state to adopt automatic voter registration in 2015, and the results have been impressive. Turnout in 2016 was the state’s highest ever at 70.4 percent of eligible voters, compared to New York’s 57.3 percent, and 44 percent of Oregonians who were registered automatically actually voted. It was especially effective at turning out underrepresented groups. Eligible youth voter turnout rose by 7 percentage points, a bigger increase than among the overall electorate. The state also skyrocketed in one year from only 53 percent registration among people of color, ranking 31st in the nation, up to 79 percent, the nation’s second-highest rate. From 2012 to 2016, Latino turnout went up 5 percent in Oregon and Asian-American turnout increased 17 percent. “We’ve seen potentially transformative effects among young people and people of color,” said Henry Kraemer, national campaigns director for Alliance for Youth Action, a youth empowerment advocacy organization. “(Automatic voter registration) has really tremendous potential to increase representation of people whose voices haven’t been heard,” he said.

Early voting, vote by mail or no-excuse absentee ballots

Early voting allows people to stop by a polling place in the week or two leading up to Election Day, while vote by mail allows them to skip the polling place altogether. The former has been widely adopted, while the latter is only used in three Western states: Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Anything that reduces the need to appear in person on Election Day could increase participation. Although experts said that a significant effect on turnout is not fully established – and that it will not have as large of an impact as same-day registration – it can’t hurt and may help quite a bit. A new study cited in The Washington Post found that vote by mail increased turnout by 3.3 percentage points in Colorado in 2014.

Early voting became more widely adopted during George W. Bush’s presidency, partly in response to the 2000 debacle in Florida. This, combined with the Obama campaign’s outreach efforts in 2008, led to enormous increases in Latino turnout in the Southwest. “Between 2004 and 2008, the share of the Latino vote went from 8 percent to 13 percent in Colorado, 10 percent to 15 percent in Nevada and from 32 to 41 percent in New Mexico,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a center-left think tank that specializes in engaging with emerging demographic groups, such as Latinos and millennials. “One of the reasons Republicans have been attacking early voting so savagely is because of that success,” Rosenberg added, referring to efforts in recent years by Republican legislatures in states like North Carolina and Ohio to scale back early voting. Same-day registration doesn’t eliminate the need to show up in person on Election Day to cast a ballot, which is a problem for many people. “If you have a manual labor job, you don’t know if you’ll be able to get off on Election Day,” Rosenberg said. “Construction workers and nurses don’t necessarily have the flexibility to vote on Election Day.” Voting by mail has proven effective at increasing turnout only among voters who are already registered, so its impact is bigger when combined with automatic voter registration – hence, the impressive turnout in Oregon, which uses vote by mail.

Create voting centers

This is a twofer because it helps both people who don’t know where to go and those who aren’t near their polling place during voting hours. In dense urban areas, where election districts are closely sandwiched together, it can be confusing to know where to vote, especially after moving. By creating some centralized polling centers where anyone from within the city or county can cast a ballot, it ameliorates that problem. It also helps people who are at work or away from home during the day. “Last year, I voted early and I went to a voting center that was not in my precinct but near where I was picking up my son, who was playing baseball,” said Rosenberg, who lives in Washington, D.C. “Research shows a lot of the reason people don’t vote is inconvenience.”

Lengthen polling hours

In much of New York state, polls are only open from noon to 9 p.m. for primaries. That’s hardly conducive to maximizing turnout. Why not open at 6 a.m. like in the New York City region? And why not keep the polls open until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m.? The impact might be statistically insignificant, but so were the 537 votes separating Bush and Al Gore in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.

Increase the number of polling machines and improve training for poll workers

Long lines caused by broken or too few voting machines and chaos caused by poll worker errors breaks out in every election, especially in New York City. The hourslong waits can lead potential voters to give up and leave as well as discourage them from voting in the future. A law requiring a certain number of machines per precinct, with enough to serve as a backup in case one fails, would help. Since it’s impossible to quantify the number of voters who are turned off by long lines, however, there is not good data on how much difference this would make.

Ben Adler
is City & State’s senior editor.
20180922