Blair Horner: Deadline Looms In NY's Election Calendar

Aug 13, 2018

New York is considered a “blue” state, one in which Democrats have a significant voter enrollment advantage over Republicans.  And it’s true: New York has about 6.2 million registered Democrats and 2.8 million registered Republicans (another 3 million-plus New Yorkers are either not enrolled in a political party or registered in a minor party).  But if you look at the state outside of the City of New York, in terms of party enrollment the state is very competitive for Republicans, with 2.8 million Democrats compared to 2.3 million Republicans. 

In those areas, particularly in the suburbs, elections can be very competitive.  New York’s voter registration laws can have a big impact on electoral participation.

New York law doesn’t make it easy to register to vote and this week the first of some of the state’s important voter registration deadlines kicks in.  It’s important to pay attention to these deadlines because the party primary election is only a month away on September 13th—and yes, your calendar is correct, that is a Thursday.

If a new voter  wants to join a political party and register for a state primary election, he or she will have to do so this week (by August 19th).  If a currently-enrolled person wants to switch a political party to vote in the primary, that deadline has passed – you have to switch prior to last year’s general election registration deadline.

This week’s registration deadline is not the only one to pay attention to, however.  In order to be registered in time for the upcoming general election, November 6th, a citizen would have to be registered by October 12th.  By and large, New York’s voter registration deadlines require that a would-be voter has to file the relevant paperwork no sooner than 25 days prior to the election date.

There is nothing magic about that deadline, it was instituted to make it easier for election officials, not voters.

Not all states make it so hard to register to vote.  There are a number of states that allow citizens to register and vote on Election Day.  As of March 2018, 17 states plus the District of Columbia offer same-day registration (SDR), which allows any qualified resident of the state to go to register to vote and cast a ballot all in that day. Additionally, Washington has enacted same-day registration, to be implemented in 2019.  Obviously, New York does not allow this option.

Some states take other steps to make it easier to enroll.  These states automatically enroll voters if they are signing up for a government program. 

Currently, voter registration in most states is an “opt in” policy, where the burden is on an eligible voter to fill out a voter registration application, which gets reviewed and processed before the name goes on the voter rolls.  Automatic voter registration is an “opt out” policy by which an eligible voter is placed on the voter rolls at the time they interact with a motor vehicle agency (or in a few states with other government agencies) unless they actively decline to be registered.  New York is not one of the states that has this “opt-out” system.

While New York’s 25-day registration deadline is not unique, it is among the most restrictive.  Voter registration deadlines vary by state, with most falling between eight and 30 days before the election.

New York has, on the other hand, done much to avert creating other obstacles to voting.  The state is considered among the nation’s best when it comes to minimizing voter identification requirements.  Many states have developed onerous identification requirements under the guise of protecting against “voter fraud” – but there is little fraud of this kind, and the burden on voters unduly restricts the right to vote and imposes unnecessary costs and administrative burdens on elections administrators.

Despite that, New York’s inability to modernize its system to meet the needs of a more mobile population with far different work requirements than earlier generations, has led to very low voter participation rates – one of the worst in the nation.  New York needs to do better, much better.

After all, voting is a constitutional right – not a privilege.  The system should be designed to maximize the ease by which voters can participate, while ensuring that the system works fairly and honestly.  Any restrictions should only be put in place based on rigorous independent analysis, not by partisans looking to “game” the system to their own advantage.

The entity that oversees New York’s elections is controlled by the two major political parties.  The theory of that arrangement is that they will monitor each other’s actions resulting in fair elections.  In reality all it has meant is that they system is gridlocked when it comes to reforms to open up New York’s voting system. 

New Yorkers deserve a system based on the public’s best interests, not the political parties’.  Overhauling the current system to put it into the hands of civil servants is a path to better administration and real enforcement.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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