The Divide: New York’s election laws need to be changed

The Divide: New York’s election laws need to be changed

It seems like only yesterday that we were voting for president and that it can’t be time for another campaign season to begin already. But the time has come. Local primary elections will be coming to a polling place near you in just five weeks (Sept. 12). The divide between the number of eligible voters and the actual number of people who vote continues to grow. The United States has one of the worst percentages of voter participation of any democratic country. I am hoping that, starting with this year’s elections, and because so many people are not happy with the circus in Washington, the dismal voter turnout will start to change and we can reverse the trend of voter apathy.

According to a report in 24/7wallst.com, New York ranks 42nd out of 50 states in voter participation. On average, only 59 percent of eligible New York voters have gone to the polls in the past four presidential elections, which usually have the highest number of voters of any type of election (over–in decreasing order–statewide, local, and school board elections). And voter turnout has been decreasing in all elections for many years, leading to fewer and fewer people electing our government leaders. This is not healthy for a representative government.

In June, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it had entered into an agreement with New York to resolve claims that the state failed to provide registration opportunities for its residents. New York, considered by many to be second only to California when it comes to being a “liberal” state, had to be cited by the Justice Department to get it to fully comply with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). Twenty-four years after the enactment of the “Motor Voter” law, our “liberal” state will finally take the actions necessary to fully implement the provisions of NVRA. Amazing and disturbing all at the same time.  

Five weeks following the announcement of the agreement with the Justice Department, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed Executive Order No. 169 to put in place the actions necessary to expand voter registration opportunities and to “combat low voter participation.” One thing that was interesting about the Executive Order was that nowhere in the document does the Governor reference the agreement with the Justice Department. Not only does Cuomo fail to cite the agreement, he accuses the federal government of “threaten[ing] the sanctity of America’s democracy.” I agree with this sentiment of Cuomo’s, but let’s clean-up our own anti-democratic actions like gerrymandering congressional, assembly and senate districts to favor one political party over the other, before we blame everyone else for disenfranchising voters.

Cuomo’s executive order also calls for the establishment of a Voter Registration Task Force. The task force was given seven tasks that are generally concerned with the implementation of Cuomo’s order to expand SUNY and CUNY registration efforts as well as including additional state agencies in the Motor Voter registration process. The task force has until March 1, 2018 to present its final report. Most likely the suggestions contained in the report will not be able to be adopted in time for the 2018 gubernatorial election, thus keeping the status quo of the current system of voter restrictions in place until after Cuomo’s 2018 re-election campaign ends.

However, seeing that many other states have already implemented early voting, same-day registration and voting, voting by mail, internet voting, automatic registration when applying for a driver’s license, etc., the task force does not need to re-invent the wheel. The task force just has to put together a legislative package that adopts the best practices of these other states. Therefore, I propose that the task force meet weekly until the end of October of this year and offer up its recommendations “to help combat low voter participation” and bring “liberal” New York into the 21st century in time for the 2018 statewide elections. Okay, I know, this won’t happen–after all, it is New York, where the protection of one’s Senate or Assembly seat takes preference over election law and campaign finance reform.

New York’s archaic election laws must be scrapped ASAP, with new, voter-friendly laws put into place. Let’s start with same-day registration and voting. More than a dozen states already offer this voter-friendly convenience. Naysayers complain that same-day registration poses too many logistical problems to overcome, while others use the excuse that it is too costly to implement. Some opponents even say this “new” concept needs more study. I guess “new” is a relative term considering Wisconsin has had same-day registration since 1975!

Many studies have shown that same-day registration and voting increases voter turnout by as much as 10 percent.  Connecticut saw 35,000 people take advantage of same-day registration in the 2016 presidential election. Denise Merrill, Connecticut’s secretary of state, told the Boston Globe, “For us it’s been great.” New York is not the only “liberal” and “progressive” state that is living in the past when it comes to being voter-friendly. In Massachusetts, a recent court decision has placed pressure on that state to implement same-day registration. But, of course, the state is going to appeal the decision because it would be “chaos.” I wonder what might have been the outcome of the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries if same-day registration and voting was allowed in all states. There were a lot of accusations that the system was rigged to ensure a Clinton primary win after many Sanders supporters were not allowed to vote in Democratic presidential primaries. This led to disenfranchising many first-time voters, who then failed to return to the polls for the general election in November.

In reality, New York’s election laws hinder voter participation. The system is setup to preserve incumbency. Neil Albrecht, Milwaukee’s election commission director said it best: “Elections should be about access and making sure everyone had an opportunity to cast a ballot. Voting is the foundation of democracy.” Governor Cuomo and state legislators, it’s time to enter the 21st Century and institute same-day registration and voting before the 2018 elections. This will be a good first step to start to reverse voter apathy, for elections have consequences, as we so sadly found out last November.

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