Representatives from good government, immigrant advocacy and other local organizations gathered outside of Federal Hall on Wall Street last week to announce an awareness campaign for the upcoming November election. The campaign wasn’t for any of the specific candidates or races happening, but for the questions that will be on the back of voters’ ballots this year. This coalition of over two dozen groups – led by Common Cause New York and Make the Road New York – said it will work to encourage people to vote “yes” on the first, third and fourth proposals to amend the state constitution – all related to elections.
In total, New Yorkers will be asked to weigh in on five ballot proposals on Nov. 2 (or before if they get an absentee ballot or vote early). It’s not every election that such questions appear, and with the questions situated on the flip side of the ballot, education and awareness are key – especially for the particularly bulky proposal 1, which would make changes to the state’s redistricting process as an independent commission works redraw district lines at the same time.
Expanded absentee voting and same-day voter registration
Two of the proposals: No. 3 and No. 4, are pretty straightforward. No. 4 would enable no-excuse absentee voting. New York is one of only a handful of states that doesn’t allow voters to vote by mail without a reason like illness, disability or being away from your election precinct. Absentee ballots have been accessible throughout the pandemic thanks to state legislation expanding the definition of “temporary illness” to include fear of contracting COVID-19. But the law is set to expire soon, reverting back to a small handful of reasons voters were allowed to give in order to vote by mail, and the constitution needs an amendment to change that. “Voting should be so much easier here in New York,” said state Sen. Jessica Ramos said at the campaign announcement. “And it's consistently embarrassing that we have to catch up to other states.”
No. 3 would enable same-day voter registration in the state. The deadline to register has moved back significantly with election reforms passed in 2019 to 10 days before an election, but the state constitution prevents lawmakers from moving it back further and allowing for voters to register on Election Day itself, something available in many other states. “This is how we make our democracy a better democracy, and a democracy that works for every one of us,” said Theo Oshiro, co-executive director of Make the Road New York. Both amendments would not immediately enact the changes, but would eliminate the barriers from the constitution that prevent the state Legislature from passing laws to make the changes, which are popular according to public polling.
Controversial changes to the state’s redistricting process
The first ballot proposal is far less straightforward. It would make multiple changes to the state’s new redistricting process, which is currently underway. The redistricting process was established in 2014 and involves an independent commission appointed by the Legislature redrawing district lines in a supposedly bipartisan manner. Once the commission redraws the lines every decade, they are sent to the state Legislature for approval. The first ballot proposal is the only amendment on the ballot to face opposition. Changes include cementing the number of state senators at the current 63, diminishing the number of votes required to approve new district lines when both chambers of the Legislature are controlled by the same party, ensuring that undocumented New Yorkers are accounted for in redistricting and counting incarcerated people at their last known address rather than the location of their prison.
The proposal would also change the deadlines for when the Independent Redistricting Commission would need to submit its final maps to the state Legislature for approval. The original deadlines, set in 2014 with a different amendment, were created when the state still had its primaries in September and would leave little time before the election for candidates and voters alike to learn their new district lines. “I’ve personally been aiming for Jan. 1 – which is what the new date is in the ballot referendum,” David Imamura, chair of the Independent Redistricting Commission, recently told City & State. “I think that we should aim for that date regardless of whether the referendum passes or not.” He supports all aspects of the proposal, but said the deadlines are the most pressing issue right now.
But changes to redistricting are not without their opponents, who say that the changes are confusing to the average voter who is not deeply entrenched in the process while it plays out. “It just seems backwards that we are right smack dab in the middle of the process, and now we're asking voters to pass a constitutional amendment to change the process,” said Jennifer Wilson, deputy director of the League of Women Voters of New York, which opposes the proposal. She added that while she supports some aspects, like preventing prison gerrymandering and ensuring all people are counted, the lack of education and timing of the referendum makes no sense. She added that if the commission could get the maps done sooner regardless, she saw no reason to support the amendment just for that reason.
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York strongly pushed back against the opposition. “I think it's pretty ironic that the people who pushed the 2014 proposal, which was much more complicated and made much bigger changes and was much harder to understand, are now claiming that this is too complicated,” Lerner said. Both Citizens Union and the League of Women Voters supported the 2014 amendment, the result of negotiations between then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Senate Republicans, that created the current bipartisan redistricting commission.
On the lack of education, Oshiro from Make the Road said educating voters was the whole point of the awareness campaign launched last week, and why his group in particular got involved to ensure immigrants and non-native English speakers have the information they need ahead of voting. “We know that people will have a lot of questions right about what questions one, three and four mean,” said Oshiro. “So at Make the Road we're holding community information sessions to explain what these proposals are about.”
Does ballot question No. 1 make it easier to gerrymander?
Opponents also said the first proposal would make redistricting more partisan again. Currently, when a single party (read Democrats) controls both the state Senate and the Assembly, a two-thirds majority is needed to approve the new district lines. The ballot question would reduce that requirement to a simple majority, taking some voting power away from the minority party (read Republicans). That simple majority becomes 60% if the commission doesn’t agree on a single plan to send. It would also allow the two executive directors of the Independent Redistricting Commission to be of the same party (again, favoring Democrats). “If this goes through, this would mean that one particular party that dominates in the Legislature could continue to do what has happened before,” said Betsy Gotbaum, president of Citizens Union, referencing the partisan politics that dominated redistricting when Republicans controlled the state Senate. “What we want is … that there’s no more of this gerrymandering.”
While Wilson said that the state should wait until the process plays out to gauge the success of the new bipartisan commission, Lerner already declared it an unequivocal failure when it split on party lines and released two sets of draft maps last month. “The idea that any one commissioner says, ‘Oh, well, we're going to abide by this particular timeframe,’ they can't agree on anything,” Lerner said. And on the concerns about shifting too much power to one party, she said the current proposal just fixes the 2014 amendment which was written to favor Republicans by setting uniform standards for voting. (Under current rules, Republicans would need only a simple majority to approve new lines if they controlled the state Senate, while Democrats would need a two-thirds majority since they control both chambers.)
The less controversial second and fifth proposals
The last two ballot proposals have received far less attention compared to those on voting and election reforms, although several people at the campaign launch for those proposals expressed their support for all five, and Citizens Union and the League of Women Voters only oppose the redistricting question. The second ballot question would add a right to clean air, water and a healthy environment to the state constitution’s Bill of Rights, while the last one would increase the jurisdiction of New York City Civil Court, which currently hears cases worth $25,000 or less, to hear cases $50,000 or less. While the environmental referendum is somewhat self-explanatory for those who support environmental and climate change initiatives, the court question is perhaps less so for those who don’t find themselves in need of going to court. Supporters say it’s meant to keep more people from needing to go to state Supreme Court, which often means the case will take longer to get resolved.
Republicans in the state oppose the ballot referendums this year, all of which passed in the state Legislature after they lost control of the state Senate. On Monday, the state GOP Chair Nick Langworthy announced the launch of the Just Say No campaign encouraging New York voters to reject the redistricting question. Former Rep. John Faso also came out against the three election proposals in an op-ed in Newsday.
But regardless of where different groups ultimately fall on the proposals, they share one message for voters: Remember to flip your ballot on Nov. 2 and vote on the five questions on the back.