A bill that would have implemented automatic voter registration very nearly became law in New York last week. But the measure was held back from crossing the finish line ― by a typo.
The bill, which would allow New Yorkers to be automatically registered to vote when interacting with certain state agencies, passed on June 19 in the state Senate. Activists were anticipating passage in the Assembly soon after, but the bill was abruptly recalled, which Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins And Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement was due to a “significant technical issue.” The lawmakers promised they would pass automatic voter registration in their next session, which begins in January, and that it would be implemented in 2021, the same timeline as if it had passed this year.
The “technical issue” was a typo that made its way into the bill via an amendment passed on the Sunday before the last day of the legislative session, according to Sean Morales-Doyle, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
And because there is a constitutional provision in New York mandating that a bill has to be in its final form for three days before its passage, lawmakers didn’t have time to fix the typo before their session ended, Morales-Doyle said.
The bill included a warning to noncitizens that registering to vote was a crime, and it told them not to check the box opting out of voting. Thanks to that added word, the bill was effectively telling noncitizens interacting with state agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles the opposite of what it should have ― which could wrongly register them to vote and could have serious consequences.
The automatic voter registration bill would have allowed New Yorkers to be enrolled as voters simply by interacting with one of multiple state agencies, such as the DMV, the Department of Health, or the Office of Children and Family Services. The bill would have implemented an “opt out” rather than “opt in” system, meaning unless people decline to be registered when filling out the forms, they would be.
Experts anticipate automatic voter registration would significantly increase voter turnout in New York, which faced national scrutiny in 2018 for perceived failures in facilitating voting during the midterms. An opinion piece by Morales-Doyle and Chisun Lee, both counsel at the Brennan Center, recently called New York’s voting system the “worst-in-the-country,” citing long lines, a lack of early voting and an antiquated voter registration system. The state’s voter participation is also lagging ― while New York saw its highest voter turnout since 1994 in the 2018 midterms, at 49% of eligible voters, it ranks 42nd among states for participation.
With automatic voter registration, “the default becomes participation,” according to Perry Grossman, Voting Rights Project attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“The big impact is you’re going to see higher registration rates,” he said. “And we are going to see the registration gap — between whites and minorities, high-income and low-income, native-born citizens and naturalized-citizens — close.”
There are up to 2 milllion people who are over age 18, are citizens and are eligible to vote, but for a variety of reasons are not registered, New York state Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris (D), who sponsored the bill in his chamber, told HuffPost last week before the bill was recalled. (Estimates vary ― Let New York Vote, a statewide coalition of grassroots and civil rights and liberties organizations pushing for election and voting reform, placed the figure at 1.1 million.)
“This will give many of them the opportunity to get on the rolls and increase our participation rate, which is among the worst in the country,” Gianaris said.
If the legislature had passed the measure, New York would have joined 16 other states and the District of Columbia with this bill. The New York automatic voter registration bill has been introduced in every legislative session since 2015. But it took until this session for lawmakers to promise they would make its passage happen.
Before 2018, Republicans held the majority of seats in the state Senate.
“We had great hopes of passing AVR this session, especially with all of the traction and statewide support,” Assemblywoman Latrice Walker (D), who introduced the companion bill in the Assembly, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, critical elements in the bill was missing and we felt it was not right to move forward with the bill currently written.” She expressed support of the commitment of Senate and Assembly majorities to passing the updated bill next session.
Some lawmakers, primarily Republicans in the state, warned the bill would allow noncitizens to register to vote. (A bill passed on June 12 allows undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses so they could be automatically registered then.) Assemblyman Colin Schmitt (R) told the New York Post that the automatic registration bill was “an egregious assault on the integrity of elections in our state.” Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis (R) told the newspaper that the bill was “a blatant attempt to allow voter fraud to fester,” a concern that, according to the outlet, she raised during the vote.
Morales-Doyle and Grossman dismissed those rumors. Morales-Doyle noted that the bill’s language also included a warning for noncitizens that they could be subject to criminal penalties and possible deportation if they registered to vote. That language was put in place to protect noncitizens who would face “disastrous” consequences for registering, Morales-Doyle said.
“Anyone suggesting that this was something intentional or devious or something, I think is just kidding themselves,” Morales-Doyle said.
Grossman suggested Republicans were bringing up the argument because they opposed the measure to get more voters on the rolls. Republicans “have a solution in search of a problem,” he said. “But their problem is they have absolutely no interest in seeing more people register to vote. And so they’re fighting tooth and nail with bad faith arguments, everything that would get more people on the rolls.”
Although the automatic voter registration bill was a disappointment, voting rights advocates made other gains in New York’s 2019 legislative session.
At the beginning of the legislative session in January, lawmakers passed numerous voting rights bills, including early voting, pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds and consolidating state and federal primaries into one day.
In June, lawmakers passed a bill that moved the party enrollment deadline for registered voters up and closer to the primary, cutting in half how many days before the primary voters had to change their party registration.
“[The session] basically brought New York up to speed with the majority of the rest of the country and brought New York’s elections into the 21st century, with early voting and online voter registration,” Morales-Doyle said.