New York's Horrific Voting Laws Might Actually Get Changed

Now that Democrats have complete control over the state government, they say they will swiftly push changes to the state's restrictive voting laws.
New York State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D), the incoming majority leader, and other top Democrats have pledged to push voting reforms quickly once they take power.
New York State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D), the incoming majority leader, and other top Democrats have pledged to push voting reforms quickly once they take power.

New York State Democrats say they plan to quickly push reforms to the state’s antiquated voting laws when they take complete control of the state legislature in January, encouraging advocates in a state where reform has long been stymied.

Despite its reputation as a solidly Democratic state in presidential years, New York’s voting laws are among some of the most restrictive in the country. Voter turnout is consistently low. It is one of just 12 states where there isn’t an early voting period before Election Day to cast a ballot. If voters want to cast an absentee ballot, they have to give officials an excuse for why they can’t make it to the polls. When there’s a federal and state election in the same year, New Yorkers have to go to the polls on different days for primary contests, driving down turnout and costing the state millions of dollars. The state cuts off voter registration 25 days before an election. And if voters want to vote in a primary, they have to declare their affiliation with a party very far in advance ― in some cases, nearly a year.

Democrats in the state assembly passed a package of voting reforms earlier this year, but the legislation died under in the GOP-controlled state senate. But after Democrats won control of the upper chamber in November, State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D), the incoming deputy majority leader, said he expected Democrats to swiftly push measures that would establish early voting, automatically register voters, consolidate primary dates and give voters more time to register.

“It is certainly at the top of the agenda for the new Democratic majority in the senate,” Gianaris said in an interview. “We are lagging the country, in an embarrassing way, on voting laws in large part because for years there was a majority in the senate that viewed increased voting participation as against their political interests. Unfortunately, it’s the ultimate in cynicism to do things that damage our democracy to help a particular party’s electoral prospects. But that’s what we were dealing with.”

The urgency of reform underscores how potent an issue voting rights have become for Democrats this year. The issue played a central role in contests in Florida and Georgia this year, and Republican lawmakers are currently moving to impose additional voting restrictions in lame-duck sessions in Wisconsin and Michigan.

“The voters get it right now,” said Susan Lerner, the executive director of the New York chapter of Common Cause, a good government group that has long pushed for reform in the state. “Frankly, there are a lot of us who have worked very hard to make it clear to the public that New York’s elections are really behind. That this is a bad form of exceptionalism for New York.” She added that the increased national focus on election issues also contributed to the urgency in New York.

“The voters get it right now.”

- Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York

Jessica Proud, a spokeswoman for the state Republican party, declined to comment on the prospect of reform, saying the party would wait to see the details of legislation and consult with Republican legislative leaders.

Control of the New York legislature has been divided between Democrats and Republicans for the last two decades. Now, with unified Democratic control, advocates are optimistic after years of pushing that change is close. Neal Rosenstein, government reform coordinator at New York Public Interest Research Group, which has also pushed for voting changes, said the next session would be a test to see how serious Democrats were about changing the law. In an interview with The Hill, Gianaris said that when he served in the state assembly incumbent Democrats had opposed voting reform.

“It’s a real test, in particular for the Assembly, and for folks who have championed issues and have said we need things like same-day [registration], have said we need things like automatic registration,” Rosenstein said. “If they pass it only with the knowledge of being safe in their beds, so to speak, that the Senate would never pass it, now is a real test. Are they gonna pass those reforms? Or were they paying lip service in previous years?”

Advocates were optimistic earlier this year when Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat elected to his third term this fall, included funding for early voting, automatic and same-day registration in his annual budget proposal. That optimism vanished when the reforms were dropped in negotiations with state legislative leaders, prompting criticism that the governor was not committed enough to making the changes. Cuomo has blamed Republicans from blocking the change and indicated he will push for the reform with the Democratic-controlled legislature.

“Governor Cuomo has long led the fight to strengthen our democracy, and has long advanced reforms to make it easier to vote, including early voting and automatic and same-day voter registration,” Hazel Crampton-Hays, a Cuomo spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the Assembly and new Senate Democratic Majority this session to pass these and other critical reforms once and for all.”

Lawmakers will still have to work out the exact details of the voting reforms, like what days they will allow early voting on and the different ways people can get automatically registered to vote.

While 15 states and the District of Columbia have adopted automatic voter registration, the exact process varies. Gianaris said that in New York, it’s important that agencies in addition to the DMV offer automatic registration because so many New York City residents don’t own a car or drive. Gianaris has sponsored legislation in the Senate that would automatically register anyone when they interact with a host of public services, including the DMV and public universities.

There are also two important changes that lawmakers can’t make just by passing a law. New York’s constitution outlines the conditions under which someone can vote with an absentee ballot and doesn’t permit same-day registration. It also requires that county election boards be evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, leading to deadlock, patronage and dysfunction. To amend the state constitution, lawmakers must pass a measure in two consecutive sessions before sending it to voters for approval. (The constitution can also be amended through a convention.)

Still, Lerner said she hasn’t previously seen lawmakers make the kind of public commitment to voting reform they were making this year.

“I do believe, form everything I have heard, from various elected officials, and certainly their public statements, that they intend to move significant voting reform early in the session,” she said. “It was a clearer commitment that indicated a priority for the voting issues or the voting reform in a way that we really hadn’t seen before.”