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Backers of voting rights bills say lawmakers should not wait until 2024 to make reforms

new york state capitol at night
Matt Ryan
New York NOW
The New York state Capitol building at night.

Advocates for several bills that would make it easier to vote in New York state are viewing the waning days of the 2023 legislative session with a mixture of hope and frustration.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause, said the bills include a requirement that all ballot measures be written in plain English, not the confusing “legalese” that often describes the initiatives. Another would permit voters standing in line on Election Day to receive food or water from someone else while they wait. The practice is currently illegal in New York.

“Unfortunately, sometimes the lines are longer than we would like to see,” Lerner said. “And voters should be assisted and encouraged to stay online.”

She said providing a bottle of water, a candy bar or pizza could motivate voters to endure a long wait.

A third bill would make permanent a pandemic-era law that allowed voters to request absentee ballots if they are worried about catching or transmitting an illness.

Blair Horner with the New York Public Interest Research Group said voters are already able to request an absentee ballot if they have a disability or a debilitating illness. The change would take into account transmissible diseases as well.

“If you're worried about getting a disease, you should be able to get an absentee ballot,” Horner said. “And that matters to people with respiratory problems, chronic illnesses, and seniors who are still in the crosshairs of COVID. COVID hasn't gone away.”

Lerner said the bills are all “common sense” ideas. They have been approved in the state Senate, but so far have not advanced in the Assembly. With three days left in the legislative session, she’s worried that they won’t be considered until 2024.

“I don't believe there's opposition to any of the bills that we're talking about. There just doesn't seem to be a sense of urgency,” Lerner said. “Democracy right now really needs champions and to be strengthened.”

Lerner said while elections for president, Congress and the State Legislature don’t occur until next year, there are plenty of local races in 2023, including the New York City Council and races for county sheriffs and district attorneys, where she said the changes could have a positive impact.

A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Mike Whyland, did not rule the bills in or out, saying that they are still under consideration as the session winds down.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.