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Advocates Push For Early Voting In New York

Alexander F. Yuan

Democrats who will run the state Senate in January say a top priority will be to expand access to voting in New York. Advocates say there are several steps they can take.

The incoming Senate leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, says New York is one of the last states in the nation that hasn’t expanded voting beyond Election Day. She says that by the next presidential election in 2020, that will change and New Yorkers will have more options to vote early, and eventually vote by mail from home.

“We don’t have so many things that we could have to make voting easier,” said Stewart-Cousins. “Those kinds of reforms will be among the very first.”

Several measures to expand voting in New York were approved by the Democratic-led Assembly, but failed to win passage in the Senate, which until the November 2018 elections was dominated by Republicans. Governor Cuomo also says he supports expansion of voter access.

Donna Lieberman with the New York Civil Liberties Union has been advocating for expanded voting for years. She says the state’s restrictive rules on when people can vote, and when and how they can register to vote has led to it having among the worst voter turnout records in the nation. In 2014, New York ranked 49th in voter turnout, with just 29 percent of eligible residents coming out to vote. She says the current rules help the political parties keep control of voting, and the restrictions “alienate” the electorate. 

“In New York we have our own passive aggressive voter suppression mechanism going on,” Lieberman said. “By virtue of the legislature’s failure to adopt common sense, user friendly, democracy friendly voting reforms that are long overdue.” 

The New York Civil Liberties Union and other reform groups back extended in-person voting, by having polling places open for several days before the official Election Day, including some weekend days. Lieberman says New York also makes it difficult to register to vote. New voters have to sign up 25 days before the general election if they want to cast a ballot. The group has gone to court to try to change that rule.

“That means if you move to New York in the middle of October, you can’t vote,” said Lieberman “It’s time for New York to really get with it.”

During the 2016 presidential primary, the restrictions were even more severe. Those wishing to join a political party to vote in the primary had to do so a full six months before the April voting date.   

A proposal backed by the NYCLU would require that state agencies automatically register citizens to vote whenever they interact with the agency. Potential voters would be allowed to opt out if they don’t want to be registered to vote. 

Thirty-eight states already have mail in voting systems. And three states – Oregon, Washington, and Colorado – conduct all of their elections by mail.

But there’s a barrier to adoption of voting by mail in New York. Under the state’s constitution, absentee ballots are permitted only under very specific circumstances, including being out of town on business or vacation, an illness or physical disability, or being in prison for a non-felony crime.

Lieberman says in order to change that, the constitution needs to be amended. That requires approval by two consecutively elected legislatures, and then a vote by the public in the next general election. There are no plans for the Senate and Assembly to return this month, so the earliest the change could happen is the 2021 elections. But she says it would go a long way to improving voter participation.

“It would make a world of difference,” she said.

Finally, Lieberman says New York also should switch to electronic-based poll books, and move away from its paper-based system. She says it would be complex to implement the computerized system, but she believes it could be designed to be safe from potential hackers.

The New York Civil Liberties Union will be among the groups at the Capitol in January that will urge lawmakers to act.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.