According to legal expert Jeffery Toobin in The New Yorker, New York “is one of only thirteen states that has no provision for early voting, and instead employs the archaic practice of giving voters only two choices: show up at the polls on Election Day or vote by absentee ballot.”
Nationwide, early voting is becoming more and more common. In 2012, nearly one-third of voters cast their ballots before election day. According to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, the key benefits of early voting are:
- • Reduced stress on the voting system on Election Day;
- • Shorter lines on Election Day;
- • Improved poll worker performance;
- • Early identification and correction of registration errors and voting system glitches; and
- • Greater access to voting and increased voter satisfaction.
A constitutional amendment can clearly enable early voting for a period of one to two weeks before the election, as well as ensuring the number of polling places per constituent and the times voters can access them.
Just as it’s difficult to vote in New York State, it’s also difficult to get registered. According to Demos, “Same Day Registration (SDR) (also known as Election Day Registration) states have historically led the nation in voter turnout, with average turnout rates 10 to 12 percentage points higher than non-SDR states.”
There is also an increasing movement to automatically register voters when they interact with any government agencies, such as, but not limited to, the DMV. These are often called “Motor Voter” laws.
Oregon, which has only recently implemented automatic voter registration, is having great success with it. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the registration rate at the DMV in 2016 is 3.7 times higher than it was in 2012, and 3.9 times higher than in 2014.
Citizens can opt out of this offer, but the working assumption of the government should be that voting is a right, not merely a privilege, and the easier and more accessible registration and voting is, the better for the state, and the country. In the same manner, New Yorkers shouldn’t have to make an excuse to get an absentee ballot– they should be able to vote in whatever legal way is most convenient for them.
Another issue that prevents many New Yorkers from voting is the lack of permanent portable registration. Currently, if you’re registered to vote in one county in New York and move to any other county – even if it’s just across the street – you must re-register. Voters should be able to simply update their addresses at the polls and vote. Eight states have portable registration that allows people to vote even if they didn’t update their registrations before election day, and eleven states passed laws permitting Election Day Registration, which allows voters to update their registration at the polls.
New York should also join sixteen other states and the District of Columbia to enable students to pre-register when they turn sixteen or seventeen. The students’ registrations would be entered into the regular database of voters, but their accounts would be listed as “pending.” When a student turns eighteen, her status would change to being listed as an active voter.
Currently, every high school student in the state is required to take a course in Civics. This would be an ideal opportunity for the teacher to hand out the registration forms at the conclusion of the course.
In addition to the problems the state has with enfranchising voters, it has a problem with disenfranchising them as well. Currently, forty thousand New Yorkers cannot vote because they are out on parole. This is not the norm nationwide. In 38 states and the District of Columbia, most ex-felons automatically gain the right to vote upon the completion of their sentence. In fact, in Maine, felons never lose the right to vote at all. There is no rational reason for citizens who pay taxes not being allowed to vote.
Clearly, there is much to be done to engage more citizens so they can easily register and exercise their franchise. New York should lead in solving these problems, rather than continuing to ignore them.
Attorney General Schneiderman’s Proposals
In December of 2016, the Attorney General released A Report On Voter Access In The 2016 Presidential Primary. The report detailed a myriad of problems New Yorkers had voting in the primary, everything from frustrating registration deadlines to registration processing errors to poor information distribution to voters. In fact, only 19.7% of eligible voters voted in the 2016 New York State Primary, one of the lowest figures in the country.
The Attorney General also suggested a wide range of improvements to the system, including:
- • Provide for Automatic Registration of Eligible Voters
- • Allow New Voters to Register and Vote on the Same Day (“Same Day Registration”)
- • Implement a System of Online Voter Registration
- • Create a System of Permanent Voter Registration
- • Allow Registered Voters to Change Their Party Enrollment Closer to Primary Day
- • Adopt a System of Early Voting
- • Provide for “No Excuse” Absentee Voting
- • Ensure Uniformity of Poll Site Hours Across the State
- • Consolidate Federal, State, and Local Primaries on a Single Day
- • Restore Voting Rights to Citizens on Parole
These changes have been submitted to the State Assembly by Assemblyman Michael Cusick and numerous co-sponsors in Bill Number A05312 in February, 2017. If passed and signed by the Governor, these would be major improvements in voting rights for the state.
However, it should be noted that previous attempts at improving voting access have never made it through both the Senate and the Assembly, (see, for instance, “the Voter Empowerment Act of New York.”