Signing voting rights expansion, Hochul, advocates contrast New York with nation
Governor Kathy Hochul signed a voting rights package Monday, saying New York stands against efforts to undermine national elections.
Marking the observed Juneteenth holiday, Hochul and fellow top Democrats gathered at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn to champion the package. They said the legislation is a civil rights measure in an era when many states have tightened voting access and leaders question the validity of elections.
Hochul said she became friends with the namesake of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act while in Congress, just days after hearing the late civil rights leader inspire college students at a graduation ceremony:
“And literally two weeks later, I won an election I wasn't expected to win,” Hochul said. “And I took my seat. And I went over, after being sworn in, I went over to John Lewis, I said, ‘You do not know the impact you had on this group of a lot of white kids in the audience. You made them believe, you made them open their eyes to something perhaps they were not aware of, they needed to hear your voice, John Lewis, and thank you for doing what you did.’ And he became a great friend of mine.”
The new laws are intended to counter U.S. Supreme Court decisions of the past decade rolling back parts of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The bills expressly prohibit voter deception and suppression, disallow denying or abridging the right of protected classes to vote, provide language assistance, require increased oversight for jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination, establish a statewide database of voting and election data and prevent electronic voting interference.
Hochul framed the bill signing as part of a larger progressive project while awaiting expected Supreme Court rulings overturning New York’s concealed carry firearm limits and the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision.
“As always, when the federal government fails to act, you can count on New York to punch back and fight even harder,” Hochul said. “We will not rest, we will not rest while these injustices continue. As I said, we did it with abortion. We did it with reproductive freedom. We did it with gun legislation. And now we're doing again with voting rights.”
Former Governor David Paterson, New York’s first Black governor, attended the bill signing, as did Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.
“When the governor mentioned that she won an election she shouldn't have won, I lost an election that I shouldn't have lost,” she said. “I lost by 18 votes in the most hotly contested race in state history in February of the following year, they told me I lost by 18 votes. But it wasn't just a loss. It was a loss that even the Times wrote an editorial about; they said in a gym in Yonkers the game was Block The Vote because people were questioning people in my community as they tried to cast their vote.”
The state’s first Black woman Senate leader was pointing to her 2004 loss in a race marred by claims of voter suppression and worse.
“The most progressive and expansive voting rights laws in the country,” she said. “As we do this, I want you to know that New York State is an example of even some of these things that we've seen in the deepest, deepest South.”
Also speaking at the ceremonial signing at Medgar Evers College was 90-year-old Hazel Dukes, President of the NAACP New York State Conference and a direct link to the era of Evers, a celebrated civil rights activist who was assassinated in 1963.
“So today with the first woman who is the leader of this state, I'm glad to receive my pen. When they put me in that casket and it's all done I want that pen in with me because I want it to be known, if I can help somebody as I pass along, then my living will not be in vain,” Dukes said.
The New York Civil Liberties Union says the voting rights package comes at a time of lacking “federal leadership,” and urged lawmakers to fight to protect the right to vote. A federal package has stalled in the Senate.
Copyright 2022 WAMC Northeast Public Radio. To see more, visit WAMC Northeast Public Radio.