By: Michael A. Villacrés
In a previous post, we examined New York’s restrictive voting laws. During the state’s presidential primary in April 2016 it emerged that thousands of voters had been purged from the registration rolls in the months leading up to the primary, creating a public scandal. The day after the primary vote, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, a Democrat, announced an investigation into New York City’s Board of Elections after his office received over one thousand complaints of voting irregularities.
The Attorney General’s Office issued its report in December 2016. In a public announcement in Albany, Schneidnerman stated “In New York we have what amounts to legal voter suppression.” As a result of the report’s findings, Schneiderman proposed a comprehensive bill to expand voting rights in New York—the New York Votes Act. The bill makes sweeping changes to New York’s election law. It mandates automatic voter registration of eligible voters, allows online voter registration and online requests for absentee ballots, allows same-day voter registration for new voters, creates a system of permanent voter registration, and allows already registered voters to changes their party affiliation up to 120 days before any primary election. These changes are likely to significantly increase voter registration. New York currently ranks near the bottom in terms of voter turnout. In 2015 the state ranked 46th.
New York has restrictive absentee voting requirements. Under current state law, voters have to select from a list of specific reasons why an absentee ballot is necessary. The bill makes a major change in this area by repealing the current absentee ballot requirements and adopting “no excuse” absentee voting. Article II, section 2 of the state constitution implies that absentee voting is only available for specific reasons, so this provision will not take effect until the constitution is amended. In addition to more absentee voting, the bill aims to reduce long waiting times at polling sites on election day by adopting a system of early voting. New York currently has no early voting. The proposed change makes it possible for New Yorkers to start voting at designated polling sites two weeks before an election.
Poll sites in most New York counties do not open until noon on primary days. The Attorney General’s Office found that this practice contributes to lower voter turnout. The New York Votes Act mandates all polling sites across the state to remain open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The bill restores voting rights to citizens on parole. State law currently allows citizens convicted of felonies who are on probation to vote, but does not extent the franchise to those on parole for felony convictions. The memorandum in support of the bill states there are about 35,500 parolees in New York and the provision would aid reentry into their communities. The bill also contains a provision to increase language access for non-English speakers.
The Election Law Committee is currently considering the bill.
But it has been very difficult to pass election law reform in New York. For example, the Voter Empowerment Act of New York has been consistently introduced in the State Senate by Democrat Michael Gianaris the last three legislative sessions going back to 2011. It has never made it out of committee. In January 2017, the bill was introduced again by Gianaris in the Senate and by Democrat Brian Kavanagh in the State Assembly. The proposed Voter Empowerment Act was limited to voter registration reform. It provided for automatic voter registration, established an online voter information system, allowed registration up until ten days prior to an election, and made it easier to transfer voter registration when a person moves within the state. The bill was defeated in the Senate Elections Committee in May 2017 by a vote of 5-4.
New York’s Democratic Governor, Andrew Cuomo, also included a set of electoral reform measures in his executive budget proposal with the goal of pushing them through with the budget. In April 2017 Cuomo announced that a budget deal had been reached with both the Assembly and the Republican-led Senate, but it did not include the election law reforms.
So where does this leave the New York Votes Act? Even if the bill were to pass the Assembly, it currently does not have a Senate sponsor. Given the power-sharing dynamics between a few Democrats and the Republican majority in the upper chamber it will be a huge hurdle for its proponents to pass the bill. The bill goes a long way to modernizing New York’s restrictive election law, but sadly it may not even receive an up or down vote.