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Blair Horner: New York's Voting Deadline Looms, But Its System Fails

This week is the deadline for new voters who wish to vote in the 2018 election in New York State to register.  That’s right, a full 25 days before the election is the deadline to register.  In many cases, busy New Yorkers may not be paying attention to the candidates until Election Day gets closer.  For those would-be New York voters, they will be shut out.

Why a 25-day deadline?  Good question.  Voting is a constitutional right, not a privilege.  Yet New York is notorious for making it difficult to vote.   And the impact is clear:  the state has a Voting Eligible Population (VEP) of nearly 13.7 million in 2016.  VEP is the most reasonable measure of participation and includes citizens over 18 who are not incarcerated for a felony or on felony parole.  However, only 12.5 million New Yorkers were listed by the New York State Board of Elections as either active or inactive voters for the same time period.  That means over one million eligible citizens were not registered to vote.  While the comparison of these two datasets is imperfect, it underscores that many New Yorkers who are eligible, are simply not registered to vote.

Simply put, New York’s voter registration and voter participation rates are anemic.  In the 2016 general election, a stunningly low percentage of registered New Yorkers – under 57 percent –voted.  A review of the U.S. Elections Project analysis, showed New York to have among the worst eligible voter turnout rates in the nation. 

While many dedicated board staff and poll workers work tirelessly before and on Election Day, the problems many voters faced are systemic.  An obvious example of the deliberate way in which lawmakers create obstacles is the voting deadline itself. 

New York’s longstanding constitutional voting limit states that no law can be established that sets a voter registration limit within 10 days of an election.  10 days.  What do New York’s political leaders do?  They set a deadline of 25 days.  Two full weeks longer than the constitutional minimum.

And as the years go by, no meaningful changes are made despite the technological and societal changes.

The state’s antiquated system of voter registration is a relic of a bygone era.  It serves little purpose other than to help self-perpetuate the current leadership, ensuring re-election of incumbents and limiting voter participation.  In fact, other states have been modernizing their laws to make it easier to register to vote and as a result are among the states with the highest voting rates in the nation.

New York should join the states offering Same Day Registration through the passage of an amendment to the State Constitution.  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—on that very day.  Additionally, Washington has enacted same day registration, to be implemented in 2019.

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.  Here in New York, campaigns for statewide and local offices barely attract public attention before October.  By the time voters begin to focus on the election, the deadline has already passed.  If you’re not registered, please do so.  When thinking about Election Day and the importance of this fundamental civic obligation, remember New York’s need for voting reforms.

Blair Horner is executive 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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