Election reform legislation moves forward in New York

The state Senate recently passed a series of bills aiming at cleaning up the state’s voting systems.

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, chair of the Elections Committee.

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, chair of the Elections Committee. NY Senate Media Services

Election reforms have quietly been making their way through the state Legislature in the waning days of this year’s session, overshadowed by scandals, redistricting and tragedy. On Tuesday, the state Senate approved a package of bills to improve the functioning of the state and local boards of elections, a perennial issue that has rarely led to significant legislation. It’s just one of several key voting rights and election reform bills that lawmakers have acted on as they wrap up their legislative work for the year.

Back in November 2019, state Sen. Zellnor Myrie, chair of the Elections Committee in his chamber, released a report outlining the myriad problems with election administration following a series of hearings he and members of his committee held around the state. The report painted a dire picture of a system in desperate need of immediate reform and recommended a series of potential solutions including restructuring the New York City Board of Elections, improving poll worker training and changing how election commissioners are selected. “These problems are not new, but in an era where the legitimacy of elections has come under attack across the country, it's more important than ever that we solve them,” Myrie said in a statement at the time.

When lawmakers returned to Albany at the beginning of the year, voting rights and election reform did not seem to top the list of immediate priorities. They were dealing with a new governor during the legislative year for the first time in over a decade as they negotiated a budget that wound up late. Debates around crime and bail reform continued as crime rates spiked. And redistricting sucked up a lot of the air in the room, something that did not change as the months went by. As the year continued, other unexpected events – including the resignation of former Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin and the racist mass shooting in Buffalo that left 10 Black people dead – further drew attention away from the problems that raised alarm bells back in November. 

But as the legislative session came to a close, lawmakers turned their attention back to those issues as the state prepares for two different primary days thanks to the redistricting debacle. Democrats in the state Senate passed more than a dozen bills that would reform boards of elections across the state on Tuesday. The issues they touched on ran the gamut – required training for commissioners and poll workers, downsizing the New York City Board of Elections from its current 10 commissioners to two, qualification requirements for commissioner appointees, a new method for removing election commissioners and making those commissioners full time employees. 

“I think it’s important for New Yorkers to know that their democracy is being run by the best people possible,” Myrie said on the floor of the state Senate on Tuesday. “And we have a lot of those folks already in the boards of elections, but there are structural issues, there operational issues that we must address so that we can be a credible democracy, we can be one that is respected and one that is not the butt of jokes.” He said that many of the recommendations from the report made it into the package of bills the chamber was passing. “I hope that this is but a first step,” Myrie said.

Despite making their way through the state Senate, the bills included in the package haven’t seen similar success in the Assembly, where they remain in committee with no apparent plan to push them forward before the end of the year. A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the status of the bill package in his chamber.

The state Senate has also made progress on another recommendation from last year’s report by acting on the New York Voting Rights Act, which would enact state-level protections at the ballot box as the Supreme Court has weakened certain federal protections in recent years. It received its first vote in either chamber since its introduction in 2020 last week when the chamber’s Election Committee gave its thumbs up to the bill. It has since moved out of the Finance Committee and sits in the Rules Committee, the last step before it can go to the floor for a full vote. Although voting rights advocates expressed confidence that the bill will get passed in the Assembly, it still remains in the Election Law Committee with just a handful of scheduled session days left.

One voting reform left over from years past did receive approval from both chambers recently. The legislation would solve a problem referred to as “wrong church, wrong pew.” Under current law, if a voter casts an affidavit ballot at the wrong polling site, their vote gets tossed, even if all or even some of the races were among those they could weigh in on. The newly passed legislation would enable the votes for such races to still count, so long as the person voted in the correct county. In other words, a Nassau County resident who showed up at a precinct simply in the wrong Assembly district in their county with all other races correct, their vote for state Senate would still count, as would votes for statewide races, U.S. Senate and Congress.