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Blair Horner: New York Needs To Bolster Its Voting System

During the 2012 election, far too many Americans voters had to stand in long lines for hours in order to cast their ballot.  Voters who were stuck waiting were all too frequently lower-income and non-white.  The President promised to act, in order to ensure that such a disgraceful situation would never happen again.

The President convened a blue-ribbon panel jointly headed by the top lawyers for the Obama and Romney campaigns.  Last week, the panel issued its findings.  The report, The American Voting Experience: Report and Recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, called for – among other proposals – expanded early voting, online registration, and a goal of ensuring that no voter waited on line for more than 30 minutes to cast their ballot.

The report was the result of a six-month-long study.  The panel held public hearings as well as meetings with experts and election administrators.

The report’s findings came as New York is once again debating how to strengthen its democracy.  And while most of that debate has been over weak ethics laws and a “pay-to-play” political culture, the state’s obstacles to voting is another big problem.

Public participation in New York’s elections continues its downward trend.  New York State had a “voting eligible population” of nearly 13 million in 2012.  The state Board of Elections reports that nearly 11 million New Yorkers are considered “actively” registered to vote.  That means that roughly 2 million eligible citizens were not actively registered to vote.

In addition, New York State has one of the worst voter turnouts in the nation – it was ranked 47th in the nation in voter turnout in 2012.

Why?  The elections system itself just doesn’t work.

New York’s system is based on the two major political parties running the state’s elections.  The theory was that with the parties watching over each other’s shoulders, the public’s interests would be protected.

But what we’ve gotten instead is a system in which millions of eligible voters are not registered and a state with one of the worst voter turnouts in the nation.

In addition, New York’s elections system has become a refuge for political party patronage.  Local party leaders are often themselves chosen for leadership positions on county election boards.  For example, in ten of the 57 upstate counties in 2013, at least one election commissioner or deputy commissioner was the Democrat or Republican county party chair or vice chair. Party leaders as election commissioners oversee primary election to the party leadership posts they hold and to which they may seek reelection, an inherent conflict of interest.

Are the party faithful the best choices for running the state’s elections?  Not at all.

So what should be done?

The first step is to get rid of the Board of Elections.  The state should follow the guidance provided by the President’s report and replace it with an independent state election commission staffed by non-partisan professionals.

And in order to help boost voter participation, the state should allow New Yorkers to register and vote on Election Day.  Each year, just as interest in elections and candidates begins to peak, potential voters find that the deadline for registering to vote has already passed.  Such a system would dramatically increase voting rates.  Voter participation rates in “same-day” states are traditionally among the highest in the country.

Unfortunately, New York’s elections system is broken beyond repair.  Boards and their employees have little or no accountability to the public.  The results are clear: millions not registered to vote, shocking low voting rates, the major parties colluding against minor parties and too often the public interest.  It’s time to end New York’s patronage-driven, ineffective Boards of Elections.

Let’s hope this year’s reforms fix New York’s elections system.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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