Election Reform Detailed
Why is it so hard to vote in New York?
- New York’s voter turnout is among the worst in the nation. In 2014, New York ranked 49th out of the 50 states in voter turnout with “just 29 percent of eligible voters casting ballots,” even worse than in 2010, when New York was 48th.
- It’s no surprise, therefore, that there is no early voting, no automatic voter registration, no no-excuse absentee balloting, no same day voter registration, no voter preregistration, and no statewide voter portability. Even citizens on parole, who are working and paying taxes, are not allowed to vote.
- New York needs a new constitutional amendment enshrining
- Early voting
- Same day registration
- Automatic voter registration
- No excuse absentee balloting
- Parolee voting
- Student preregistration
- In addition, in New York, like 26 other states, the amendment should say elections should be “free and equal.” All these items are simply a means to make it easier for citizens to register and vote.
- “A U.S. Elections Project analysis showed New York to have among the five worst turnout rates in the nation among eligible voters.” – www.nypirg.org/vote
- “Any law that makes it easier to vote is a good law; any law that makes it harder to vote is a bad law,” said Schneiderman, in a statement Wednesday. “New York has long been a bastion of democracy, but our state’s current system of registration and voting is an affront to that legacy.” – Gotham Gazette, quoting Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, February 9, 2017.
- “With outdated voting systems causing problems and confusion at the polls, automatic registration offers a new way out of the voting wars, and a much-needed reprieve from the partisan bickering plaguing our political debate.” –Adam Gitlin, Moyers & Company.
- 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.
- 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.
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.”
Even very simple language in a state constitution can have profound affects for protecting people’s rights to vote. As University of Kentucky College of Law Professor Joshua Douglas has noted:
As an added level of protection, twenty-six states include a provision in their constitutions stating that elections shall be “free,” “free and equal,” or “free and open.” Although these terms might seem amorphous, several state courts have construed this language as guaranteeing all eligible voters access to the ballot. As Kentucky’s highest court long ago explained—in a passage that several other courts have cited—a constitutional provision declaring elections to be “free and equal” is “mandatory”: “It applies to all elections, and no election can be free and equal, within its meaning, if any substantial number of persons entitled to vote are denied the right to do so.”
Unfortunately, New York is not one of those twenty-six states. Other states have more specific protections by statute or by their constitution. Here are two examples:
California features early voting, no-excuse absentee balloting, online voter registration and same-day registration.
A 2008 constitutional early voting amendment enabled the legislature to allow its citizens to vote up to two weeks before an election.
Suffrage (Language from the 1894 Amendment)
[Qualifications of voters]
Section 1. Every citizen shall be entitled to vote at every election for all officers elected by the people and upon all questions submitted to the vote of the people provided that such citizen is eighteen years of age or over and shall have been a resident of this state, and of the county, city, or village for thirty days next preceding an election. (Amended by Constitutional Convention of 1938 and approved by vote of the people November 8, 1938; further amended by vote of the people November 2, 1943; November 6, 1945; November 6, 1961; November 8, 1966; November 7, 1995.)
- 2. The legislature may, by general law, provide a manner in which, and the time and place at which, qualified voters who, on the occurrence of any election, may be absent from the county of their residence or, if residents of the city of New York, from the city, and qualified voters who, on the occurrence of any election, may be unable to appear personally at the polling place because of illness or physical disability, may vote and for the return and canvass of their votes. (Formerly §1-a. Renumbered by Constitutional Convention of 1938 and approved by vote of the people November 8, 1938; amended by vote of the people November 4, 1947; November 8, 1955; November 5, 1963.)
[Persons excluded from the right of suffrage]
- 3. No person who shall receive, accept, or offer to receive, or pay, offer or promise to pay, contribute, offer or promise to contribute to another, to be paid or used, any money or other valuable thing as a compensation or reward for the giving or withholding a vote at an election, or who shall make any promise to influence the giving or withholding any such vote, or who shall make or become directly or indirectly interested in any bet or wager depending upon the result of any election, shall vote at such election; and upon challenge for such cause, the person so challenged, before the officers authorized for that purpose shall receive his or her vote, shall swear or affirm before such officers that he or she has not received or offered, does not expect to receive, has not paid, offered or promised to pay, contributed, offered or promised to contribute to another, to be paid or used, any money or other valuable thing as a compensation or reward for the giving or withholding a vote at such election, and has not made any promise to influence the giving or withholding of any such vote, nor made or become directly or indirectly interested in any bet or wager depending upon the result of such election. The legislature shall enact laws excluding from the right of suffrage all persons convicted of bribery or of any infamous crime. (Formerly §2. Renumbered by Constitutional Convention of 1938 and approved by vote of the people November 8, 1938; amended by vote of the people November 6, 2001.)
[Certain occupations and conditions not to affect residence]
- 4. For the purpose of voting, no person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence, by reason of his or her presence or absence, while employed in the service of the United States; nor while engaged in the navigation of the waters of this state, or of the United States, or of the high seas; nor while a student of any seminary of learning; nor while kept at any almshouse, or other asylum, or institution wholly or partly supported at public expense or by charity; nor while confined in any public prison. (Formerly §3. Renumbered by Constitutional Convention of 1938 and approved by vote of the people November 8, 1938; amended by vote of the people November 6, 2001.)
[Registration and election laws to be passed]
- 5. Laws shall be made for ascertaining, by proper proofs, the citizens who shall be entitled to the right of suffrage hereby established, and for the registration of voters; which registration shall be completed at least ten days before each election. Such registration shall not be required for town and village elections except by express provision of law. (Formerly §4. Renumbered by Constitutional Convention of 1938 and approved by vote of the people November 8, 1938; amended by vote of the people November 6, 1951; further amended by vote of the people November 8, 1955; November 8, 1966; November 7, 1995.)
- 6. The legislature may provide by law for a system or systems of registration whereby upon personal application a voter may be registered and his or her registration continued so long as he or she shall remain qualified to vote from an address within the jurisdiction of the board with which such voter is registered. (New. Adopted by Constitutional Convention of 1938 and approved by vote of the people November 8, 1938; amended by vote of the people November 7, 1995; November 6, 2001.)
[Manner of voting; identification of voters]
- 7. All elections by the citizens, except for such town officers as may by law be directed to be otherwise chosen, shall be by ballot, or by such other method as may be prescribed by law, provided that secrecy in voting be preserved. The legislature shall provide for identification of voters through their signatures in all cases where personal registration is required and shall also provide for the signatures, at the time of voting, of all persons voting in person by ballot or voting machine, whether or not they have registered in person, save only in cases of illiteracy or physical disability. (Formerly §5. Renumbered and amended by Constitutional Convention of 1938 and approved by vote of the people November 8, 1938.)
“A05312 Summary,” sponsored by Assemblyman Michael Cusick, New York State Assembly, February 8, 2017.
“Americans in 37 States Love Early Voting. Why Not New York?” New York City Campaign Finance Board, April 28, 2016.
“Attorney General Unveils Sweeping Reform Package,” by Rachel Silberstein, Gotham Gazette, February 9, 2017.
“Automatic Motor-Voter Registration Now Law in Four States,” by Adam Gitlin, Bill Moyers & Company, May 9, 2016.
“Automatic Voter Registration,” The Brennan Center for Justice, September 22, 2016.
“Automatic Voter Registration in Oregon a Huge Success,” by Jonathan Brater, The Brennan Center for Justice, April 8, 2016.
Decision 1997: Constitutional Change in New York, Gerald Benjamin and Henrik Dullea (ed.)
“Early Voting: What Works,” by Diana Kasdan, The Brennan Center for Justice, October 31, 2013.
“Felon Voting Rights,” National Conference of State Legislatures, September 29, 2016.
“Governor Wolf, Secretary Cortés Celebrate Tremendous Success of Online Voter Registration,” Pa.gov press release, October 12, 2016.
“Maryland Early Voting, Question 1 (2008),” Ballotopedia.
“Millions to the Polls: Pre-Registration of 16 and 17-Year Olds,” by J. Mijin Cha, Liz Kennedy, Demos, February 18, 2014.
“New York Had the Second-Lowest Voter Turnout So Far This Election Season,” by Ari Berman, The Nation, April 20th, 2016.
“New York Needs Election Reform Now” Citizen Union, 2009.
“Online Voter Registration,” Ballotopedia.
“The Problem with Voting Rights in New York,” by Jeffery Toobin, The New Yorker, October 11, 2016.
“Permanent Portable Registration,” Project Vote.
“Public Opinion and Election Reform: Valence Issues vs. Choice Issues” by Paule Gronke, Cal Tech, May, 15, 2009.
“Small Investments, High Yields: A Cost Study of Same Day Registration in Iowa and North Carolina,” by Laura Rokoff and Emma Stokking, Demos, February 2012.
“Study Claims Online Voter Registration Contributed ‘Significantly’ To Higher Youth Registration,” by Gregory Ferenstein, TechCrunch, December 28, 2012.
“To Protect the Right to Vote, Look to State Courts and State Constitutions,” by Joshua A. Douglas, American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, August 2015.
“VRM in the States: Portability,” Brennan Center for Justice, January 16, 2014.
“Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in New York,” Brennan Center for Justice, October 6, 2016.
“Voting in California,” Ballotpedia.
“We’re No. 49: Report Pegs NY as Having Some of the Worst Voter Turnout in 2014,” by Matthew Hamilton, Albany Times Union, March 19, 2015.