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Blair Horner: The Sad State Of Voting In New York

This week, New Yorkers will vote again – for the third time in six months – in primary elections. Yup, that’s right, New Yorkers vote in, and pay for, two primary elections, and this year a Presidential primary as well.  In June, New Yorkers enrolled in political parties, voted in Congressional primaries and this week they voted for state legislative candidates.

And people wonder why New York has such a lousy voter participation record.

The multiple primaries are just an example of a system that has gotten twisted for the benefit of the two major parties and not the public’s best interests.  Here’s another example of a rigged system: If a voter wanted to switch parties to vote in last April’s Presidential primary, they would have had to do it by October 9, 2015 – 193 days before the primary and the earliest voter registration deadline in the nation.

There are more examples of voting roadblocks: New York State prohibits citizens from registering to vote a full 25 days before a general election – one of the earliest in the nation.

New York is one of eleven states that have “closed primaries” – primaries that only allow voters of the political party to participate. 

The stories go on and on; from the purging of over 100,000 voters in Brooklyn, to tiny fonts on the ballot, even policy gridlock at the state Board of Elections (which is run, incidentally, by the two major political parties).

As a result of these, among other, restrictions, New York State ranks near the bottom of the nation’s barrel in terms of voter participation. In the Presidential primary, New York had the second lowest turnout.  In the 2014 general election, the Empire State also ranked 49th among the states in voter eligible turnout.

Why does a state that prides itself on its openness have some of the nation’s worst voting laws?

Part of the problem rests with politicians themselves.  In order to win elected office, you have to convince your voters to show up.  Newly registered voters are political unknowns and could throw a monkey wrench into a candidate’s campaign.  The fact that New York legislators have benefited from the noncompetitive nature of elections and the status quo may have helped.  If the few voters who do vote keep reelecting the same politicians —even though the public at large claims to be endlessly frustrated with status quo representation--why would you change the rules?

Given that dismal picture, what should be done?  The most obvious step is to encourage widespread voter participation--no matter how awful the current system itself is.  The jolt of this year’s Presidential primary season may help.  According to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, its Spring registration effort was "very encouraging." During its drive to register eligible 18-year-old high school students, the Board saw a big jump in interest.  Before the drive, there were 16,000 18-year-olds registered to vote.  Around 8,500 students were newly registered during its drive, about a 50 percent increase. "These students are willing and hungry to get involved," the Board said, “but they simply want to be asked to participate."

The rest of the adult voting population has to be asked too.

In an effort to get the ball rolling, here is some voting information.  For those who are not registered, forms are available online at the state Board of Elections website (see www.elections.ny.gov/NYSBOE/download/voting/voteform_enterable.pdf).  If you want to register, you must do so before October 14th – the deadline.  You can download and print the form and mail it in or complete an online form if you have or create a state DMV account.

For those who are registered, you can verify your registration and also find out your polling place through the Board’s website too (it’s a little tricky, but use the term “look up voter information” available at: https://voterlookup.elections.state.ny.us/votersearch.aspx).

If you’re not sure who your state or federal representatives are, the Board has information on that too at www.elections.ny.gov/district-map/district-map.html.  If you want some background on each legislator, you can get it on the website of the New York Public Interest Research Group and go to the “legislative profiles” option (available at https://voterlookup.elections.state.ny.us/votersearch.aspx)

Of course, policy changes are needed.  Voter registration is a right, not a privilege.  But it’s also our responsibility to vote and improve the work-in-progress that is our democracy.  Public policies should center on making it easier, not harder, to vote.  Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers must do a lot more to fix New York’s voting crisis.

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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