A Superstorm at the Ballot Box

Hurricane Sandy showcased how vulnerable New York City is to the wrath of Mother Nature. But as we now head into Election Day, the storm also underscores how decades of poor policy decisions regarding voter registration and access to the ballot have created significant barriers to political participation across the Empire State.

As thousands of displaced New Yorkers struggle today to find polling places that may or may not be functioning, it is important to remember that this is one storm-related problem we can patch up going forward -- by joining 32 other states and embracing early voting in New York, and by doing away with the needless excuses that today are required to qualify for an absentee ballot.

Let's step back first, however, because it is important to recognize just how far we have to go in New York.

Last June, the city's Campaign Finance Board concluded that New York City has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the nation. In the November 2010 elections, turnout in the city was significantly lower (28 percent) than in the rest of the state (53 percent) and nationally (46 percent). New York City also had lower voter turnout in the presidential elections in 2008 than any other major U.S. city.

Hurricane Sandy is unlikely to improve those numbers, as thousands of New Yorkers -- many of them still without power or heat -- are forced to navigate a needlessly restrictive system for casting their vote. Allowing all displaced voters to cast an affidavit ballot today at any polling place in the city is a sensible stop-gap measure for now.

But there are longer-term steps New York could take today to fix this woeful system and fix it for good -- not just in times of weather-related crises, but always.

Take early voting. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have embraced early voting, which allows citizens to exercise their right to vote well in advance of Election Day. Instead of imposing a barrier on working people who may not be able to get to the polls on the first Tuesday of November, these states permit voting from four to 45 days prior to Election Day, with the average across all 32 states being 19 days.

Many other states, including New Jersey, allow no-excuse absentee voting. Not so in New York, where to get an absentee ballot a voter must first prove they will be out of the city, or are disabled, hospitalized, or in prison facing a misdemeanor charge.

Thus, New York law allows individuals in prison awaiting trial or as a result of a misdemeanor conviction to receive absentee ballots, but not citizens displaced by natural disasters. If that's not a broken system, I don't know what is.

For a state that prides itself as the gateway to America for millions of immigrants and a leader of progressive government, the time has come for New York to embrace both early voting and no-excuse absentee voting in order to expand access to the ballot box.

Had we had either of these sensible tools at our disposal in the last week, we could have been helping storm-ravaged New Yorkers cast their ballots, rather than forcing them to wander in search today for polling places that may or may not be functioning.

Our efforts don't have to stop there. Right now, for instance, New York closes voter registration nearly a month before primary and general elections. Many New Yorkers who tune into elections end up finding out that it is too late for them to make their voices heard.

There is a better way. Eight states and the District of Columbia allow same day registration (SDR), also known as Election Day registration. Two more states -- California and Connecticut -- will launch SDR in 2013.

Here's the point: As we continue to recover from Sandy, debates have already begun about storm walls, sea barriers, and other devices to protect New York from future storms. But we must also engage in a debate about modernizing the law so that all New Yorkers can exercise one of our most sacred civic rights and responsibilities: voting.

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