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New York’s Voting System Set for a Long Overdue Overhaul

Posted by NYPIRG on January 14, 2019 at 8:57 am
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We have all seen the grim voting statistics: New York – considered by many to be a progressive state – has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the nation.

The numbers tell the story. New York State had a voting eligible population of nearly 13.8 million in 2018. However, only 12.7 million New Yorkers were listed by the State Board of Elections as either active or inactive voters for the same time period. That means over one million eligible citizens were not registered to vote. Obstacles to registration are one reason why there is such a significant shortfall.

But voter registration obstacles aren’t the only problem, as the impact on voter participation shows. In the 2018 general election, a stunningly low percentage of registered New Yorkers – 45.2 percent –voted. A review of the U.S. Elections Project’s data showed New York to have one of the ten worst turnouts in the nation. And that ranking is consistent with New York’s voter performance over the recent decades.

When New York is near – or at – the back of the nation in voting, why hasn’t the state acted? One reason is that partisan differences on the issue have blocked needed reforms. Another reason is that incumbents get elected by those who do vote – incumbents may fear that reforms that bring in new voters may put them at risk.

Yet, the rest of the nation has moved ahead, even when faced with similar circumstances. And their successes show the path for New York to follow. For example, one way to modernize New York’s voting system is to allow busy voters the opportunity to cast their ballots early. In 38 states and the District of Columbia, any qualified voter may cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to Election Day. No excuse or justification is required. In New York, in order to vote by mail, a voter needs to request a ballot in advance and provide an excuse.

In the modern age where parents may have to juggle work, child care, and other family obligations, allowing voters to vote early and not just on a Tuesday in November is reasonable and necessary.

Another reform option is to allow young people to register to vote prior to their 18th birthday. 18 year olds are adults and have the right to vote, but allowing 16 and 17 year olds the option of pre-registering helps get young people engaged in the civic process.

In a state with abysmally low voter participation rates, only slightly more than half of New York’s youngest citizens are registered to vote. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 47% of New York’s 18-24-year-old citizens were registered for the November 2016 Presidential election. However, once registered, large numbers of young people turn out at the polls. According to the Census Bureau, 75% of New York’s 18-24 year olds who were on the rolls voted that year.

It is common-sense to enable students to pre-register at 16 or 17 years of age—the age where school is still compulsory and many come in contact with the Department of Motor Vehicles for licenses or non-driver’s identification cards.
Thirteen states and the District of Columbia permit preregistration beginning at 16 years old and four states permit preregistration beginning at 17 years old.

The most effective method for registering new voters would be to establish a system that allows voters to register and vote on Election Day. Fifteen states plus the District of Columbia offer “same-day registration” so any qualified resident of the state can go to register to vote and cast a ballot all in that day.

Each year, just as interest in elections and candidates begins to peak, potential voters find that the deadline for registering to vote has already passed. Here in New York, campaigns for statewide and local offices barely attract public attention before October. By the time voters begin to focus on the election, the deadline has already passed.

These reforms – and more – are expected to pass the Legislature this week. The package of voter reforms that will be taken up includes other changes to make voting easier, although more steps are necessary, particularly when it comes to automatic registration at government agencies and ensuring that those formerly incarcerated are able to register and vote.

For way too long, New Yorkers have had to endure obstacles to voting and a disgraceful pay-to-play campaign financing system. And to add insult to injury, for decades we’ve seen no movement for reform out of Albany. The new Senate Majority and their colleagues in the Assembly and the Governor’s mansion deserve credit for taking the first meaningful steps to strengthen New York’s democracy. This down payment on democracy should send a strong signal to New Yorkers that the days of voter frustration and cynicism may be coming to an end.

The New Year Boosts Momentum for Reform

Posted by NYPIRG on January 7, 2019 at 8:01 am
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The new Congressional House of Representatives announced last week that it would be advancing legislation to dramatically improve the nation’s democracy. The proposal, H.R. 1, (which has as yet not been introduced) would constitute a massive overhaul of how elections are run in America. Here are a few important ways that H.R. 1 improves America’s democracy:

H.R. 1 would improve voter registration by automatically registering citizens to vote any time they interact with a government agency. Currently, 15 states have programs that track the federal proposal. Experts predict that if H.R. 1 becomes law an additional 50 million new voters will be added to the rolls.

In addition, the bill would allow for same-day registration, which allows eligible voters to register at the polls on Election Day. Again, the Congressional plan is based on successful programs at the state level, offered in 16 states.

H.R. 1 would strengthen anti-discrimination powers in how voting is done. The bill would restore power to the 1965 Voting Rights Act by reversing a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that gutted public oversight of the way elections are run in parts of the nation that have had a history of voting discrimination.

The bill would also ensure that all voters have at least two weeks of early voting before Election Day, including evening and weekend hours.

H.R. 1 also attacks problems in the nation’s campaign financing system. It would establish a voluntary, small-donor matching system of public financing for Congressional races and strengthen the existing public financing system for presidential elections.

The bill would reform the way in which legislative districts are redrawn during the redistricting process by mandating that states draw congressional districts using independent redistricting commissions and establishes that they use fair redistricting criteria.

Of course, the legislation still needs approval by the full House and then the U.S. Senate, as well as sign off from the President. However, the proposal sends a strong signal that improving elections, establishing fair redistricting processes, and reducing the corrupting influence of big money, must be at the top of policy debates nationwide.

In New York similar signals have been sent. The governor has said that he will propose campaign financing reforms that include a public financing program and measures to improve voter registration, and enhance ethics.

Unlike Washington, Albany can make these – and other important reforms – happen. The new state Senate, the state Assembly and the governor’s office are all now controlled by the same political party – Democratic. And they all appear to be on the same page – at least rhetorically – in terms of improving New York State’s democracy.

The key word is “rhetorically.” Up until now it has been easy to talk up and even pass reforms in one house of the legislature if you knew it faces certain political death in the other house. Now, such games will be more obvious. The argument that “partisan” differences squelched reform is a lot harder to make when the government is firmly controlled by one political party.

Albany’s bag of tricks also includes adopting reforms that are touted as “historic,” yet when the details emerge, the legislation is anything but that. Often the “historic” reforms are merely putting a shine on the status quo. That trick is something the public should watch out for.

All that being said, the climate for approval of state measures that are sweeping and significant is unprecedented. The reform legislation advanced in the U.S. House of Representatives sets the bar for how best to judge whatever Albany does.

New Yorkers have every right to expect that the governor and the legislature will come together to overhaul the way elections are run so that the state’s voter participation rate moves from the nation’s caboose to its engine. The public has every right to expect approval of corruption-busting measures in the areas of campaign finance (particularly with the creation of a voluntary system of public financing), government contracting, and ethics.

And New Yorkers should expect an improved system of redistricting that places the ultimate power to draw new legislative lines in the hands of an independent commission armed with fair criteria. The national census starts soon and the state needs to invest in that effort too to ensure a fair count, and redistricting will soon follow after that tally is done.

The list of needed reforms is long – largely due to the inaction of the past. But the time to act is now. It’s an historic opportunity. And unlike in the past, the political stars in New York finally align for real reform. The public must make sure that this generation of state political leadership doesn’t duck or squander this opportunity.