New York State

Voting rights legislation advances in New York

Lawmakers want to expand language access and create a statewide election database among other reforms.

New York State Sen. Zellnor Myrie.

New York State Sen. Zellnor Myrie. NYS Senate Media Services

The state Senate advanced landmark voting rights legislation Wednesday morning that would, among other things, create a statewide election information database and expand language access at the polls. The Elections Committee action represents the first time the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York has come up for any kind of vote in the state Legislature. 

Meant in part to complement the pending federal legislation of the same name, state lawmakers introduced the New York Voting Rights Act in 2020. But its inception goes back to 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key measure of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required states with a history of discriminatory voting laws to get federal approval before changing election procedures. “This is, again, an attempt for New York to lead the way, for us to stand up and say that the right to vote is sacred and that those who have historically been marginalized in this space deserve protection,” state Sen. Zellnor Myrie, the bill’s sponsor and chair of the Elections Committee, said at the Wednesday morning meeting. “I look forward to the bill’s ultimate passage in our house.”

The legislation continues protections that would become enshrined in state law. Perry Grossman, a voting rights attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, pointed to the provision that would give marginalized groups the ability to bring civil lawsuits at the state level in cases of voter suppression or dilution. He said voter suppression or dilution often happens at the hyper-local levels of government that provide primary services like education and public safety that New Yorkers directly interact with daily. “I think the causes of action… are going to give both voters and jurisdictions a real opportunity to root out discrimination in local elections… that are going to make these critical but overlooked governments more representative of the people,” Grossman said in an interview with City & State. School board elections in particular have recently become incredibly polarized and closely watched in parts of the state including Western New York and the Hudson Valley, particularly on the issue of teaching about systemic racism in schools. 

On a very different note, Grossman said that the creation of a unified election and voting database with information from election bodies across the state will serve to improve voting access and election administration overall. Traditionally, the state’s disjointed web of election management has made it difficult to aggregate data from different boards of elections, school districts and the like. “Having that data means that we have the ability to understand our shortcomings better and remedy them,” Grossman said. Language to create the database exists in both the New York Voting Rights Act and a separate bill necessary for changes to law other than election law. That other bill also moved out of the Elections Committee on Wednesday.

Other aspects of the legislation would expand language access for voters. The boroughs in New York City are federally required to offer ballots and voting information in only four languages. The new bill would increase that number to 14 languages citywide under state law, while also ensuring language access in other parts of the state that have no federal requirements. 

In the state Senate, the bills moved on to the Finance Committee and are expected to get approved by the full chamber before the end of the legislative session. The Assembly has not yet taken action on its version of the bill, which is not currently scheduled to appear on the Election Law Committee. But Grossman expressed confidence that it will move shortly once a minor technical tweak is made. A spokesperson for Assembly Member Latrice Walker, the bill’s sponsor and chair of the Election Law Committee, did not provide a comment for this story.

After the New York Voting Rights Act moved in the state Senate, the New York Civil Liberties Union and 71 other groups sent a letter to state leaders urging them to approve the bill and sign it into law. “If passed, the (New York Voting Rights Act) will immediately become the most comprehensive state-level voting rights act in the country,” the letter reads. “Now is New York’s time to lead.”