It Looks Like New York Is Actually Going To Get Some Voting Reforms

Democrats say they plan to pass measures Monday that would establish an early voting period and pre-register 16- and 17-year-olds.

New York lawmakers say they plan to pass a number of voting reforms on Monday, a move that would bring long-sought change to a state where advocates say election rules are antiquated and the state’s elections are dysfunctional.

Voter turnout in New York elections is consistently low, and Democrats pledged to move quickly to change the state’s election laws after they gained a majority in the state Senate in November, giving them control of both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s mansion.

One of the expected bills would establish an early voting period before any election (New York is one of just 12 states that do not have early voting). The early voting period would begin 10 days prior to an election and end two days before it, and would have to include at least two full weekends. The bill would require local election boards to establish one early voting site for every 50,000 voters in their jurisdiction, up to seven sites ― though they could vote to authorize more. The measure would take effect for the 2019 general election.

“We have an opportunity, now that we have a Democratic majority, to include more people in the democratic process. One of those ways, a commonsense way, is to give people more time to vote,” said state Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D), the chair of the Senate’s elections committee and the sponsor of the early voting bill. “Anyone that finds themselves as an opponent of having more people vote and more people involved in the democratic process should really question why they are opposing. This is not a Democratic increase, this is not a Republican increase. This is a voter increase in participation.”

In 2018, New York was the only state to have separate primary contests for state and federal elections, something advocates said was duplicative, a waste of money and responsible for lowering voter turnout. A separate bill Democrats plan to pass Monday would consolidate the state and federal primaries to a single date. Officials say the money saved could help pay for the cost of establishing early voting, which is estimated to cost $10 million.

Another measure would permit 16- and 17-year-olds to “pre-register” to vote (which 13 states and the District of Columbia already allow). New Yorkers have to update their voter registration when they move to a different county, but another bill Democrats plan to pass would require the state to automatically update someone’s voter registration when they receive information the person has moved.

New York state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins and fellow Democrats say they will pass election reform Monday.
New York state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins and fellow Democrats say they will pass election reform Monday.

Democrats also plan to pass a measure to bring campaign contribution limits for limited liability companies in line with limits for corporations, and to require more transparency ― tightening up, but not completely closing, a loophole that allows donors to evade contribution limits.

“After 3 decades of election reformers seemingly banging our heads against a brick wall of Albany obstruction, it’s incredible to see this package of election bills advance,” said Neal Rosenstein, government reform coordinator at the New York Public Interest Research Group, which supports the new laws. “None of these bills should be at all controversial and have equivalents in place across the country.”

Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), said the governor supports and intends to sign the measures. He pointed to a December speech in which Cuomo called on the state to pass election reforms, including the ones Democrats plan to push Monday.

“Did you listen to the FDR speech two weeks ago? Then you know that every one of those items are part of his 100-day agenda,” Azzopardi said. “We’re very excited the legislature is going to pass these very important reforms that are part of the governor’s 100-day agenda, and we look forward to working with them to do more to pass public campaign financing, to make Election Day a holiday and to ban corporate contributions once and for all.”

A spokesman for state Sen. John Flanagan, the Republican leader in the state Senate, did not respond to a request for comment on the bills. Jessica Proud, a spokeswoman for the state Republican Party, also did not respond to a request for comment.

“After 3 decades of election reformers seemingly banging our heads against a brick wall of Albany obstruction, it’s incredible to see this package of election bills advance.”

- Neal Rosenstein, NYPRIG government reform coordinator

Democrats also want to change New York’s voting law to allow people to register to vote on the same day they cast a ballot, and to let people cast an absentee ballot without supplying an excuse. Those changes will take more time, however, because they require amending the state constitution. To do that, lawmakers will have to pass constitutional amendments in two consecutive legislative sessions, and voters then have to approve it through a statewide referendum. Democrats say they plan to pass constitutional amendments to implement no-excuse absentee voting and eliminate the 10-day registration cutoff in the state constitution, but the next legislative session ― the second of two in which they would have to pass those measures ― doesn’t begin until 2021.

Mike Long, the chairman of the state’s Conservative Party, told The Buffalo News that establishing early voting would help boost Democratic turnout. But a 2017 paper from political scientists at the University of Wisconsin found that early voting established without same-day registration ― which will be the circumstances in New York, at least temporarily ― actually boosts GOP turnout.

Democrats also support legislation to automatically register voters when they interact with a state agency, but that measure isn’t among those lawmakers plan to take up Monday. The first pieces of legislation likewise don’t address the extremely early cutoff date by which voters must change their party if they want to vote in a primary contest.

State Sen. Michael Gianaris, a top Democrat, told The New York Times lawmakers will act on more legislation as the session progresses.

Susan Lerner, executive director of the New York chapter of Common Cause, a good government group that has championed the reforms, said it was significant that lawmakers were focusing on voting in the first substantive bill they would pass. She said she expected to work with lawmakers on more reforms like automatic voter registration and restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions.

“I think it’s very ambitious to expect that the legislature would end basically 100 years of drought on election reform in one day in one bill,” she said in an interview. “That said, they are passing what is truly meaningful reform. And it’s a fabulous first step towards catching New York up with the rest of the country. That doesn’t mean that there still isn’t plenty to be done.”

This story has been updated with comment from Susan Lerner of Common Cause.