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Blair Horner: Will New York Lag In Voter Turnout Again?

What will Election Day 2018 bring to America?  And how will New York’s democracy perform? 

While questions abound, we do know that there appears to be enormous interest in the midterm election.  In addition to polling data, there is evidence that many voters have already cast their ballots.  Media reports in states where early voting is allowed show solid evidence that voters are keenly interested. 

In Georgia, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution early voting turnout has been huge.  On the first day of early voting this month, turnout was more than triple the early vote of 2014: 69,049 people cast ballots, up from 20,898.

In Florida, more than 2.7 million have already voted in person or by absentee ballot, a record high for a midterm, according to Politico.  That means more than a fifth of active voters in the state have already cast their ballot. 

In the Lone Star State, about 2.4 million people cast ballots in the first days of Texas’s early voting in the state’s 30 biggest counties – more than the total number of early and absentee votes in the entire voting period in 2014, according to the United States Elections Project.

Research by the US Elections Project found that 22 million votes have been cast nationwide so far.  In 11 states, there are more early votes already recorded with a week left to Election Day an early votes recorded in total in 2014.

There is enormous energy in the electorate.  When the counting is done, whether that will be the case in New York remains to be seen. 

Looking at New York’s performance over the years, our democracy has been in a sorry state.

For example, according to the US Elections Project, in 2016 New York had 13.6 million eligible voters.  The Project subtracts from the total adult population those individuals who are either non-citizens, incarcerated, on parole, or living overseas.  According to the New York State Board of Elections, the state had as many as 12.5 million voters on the rolls – meaning that there could be at least 1 million eligible voters not registered to vote.

Not only were eligible voters not registered – and thus unable to vote – many registered voters in New York don’t cast their ballots.  The last time New York’s voting rate exceeded the national average was in the year 2000.  In the Presidential election of 2016, New York was at near the bottom of the barrel—one of the six states with the worst voter turnout in the election.

Enthusiasm may exist at the national level, but it doesn’t always show itself in New York.  And the last time it did was almost 20 years ago.

Why does it matter?  If voters don’t turn out at the polls, candidates can win by just appealing to a portion of the electorate.  Voters with the lowest turnout rates are usually the young, lower income, new Americans, or voters of color. 

Why does New York perform so poorly?  Part of it is that election races in the state tend not to be very competitive.  A key reason is the way that political boundaries are often rigged by the incumbent parties.  The last time state legislative districts were redrawn, they were perhaps the most rigged to benefit incumbents ever.

Another reason is that New York’s system of elections has not kept up with the times.  As noted, over 22 million Americans were allowed to cast their votes early.  In modern America – with its two income households and hectic schedules – making it easier to vote helps boost the number of people who actually cast a ballot.  New York doesn’t allow early voting.

New York’s failure to modernize its elections has meant that we are not benefitting from new voting innovations of other states.  For example, among the states with the highest turnouts are states that allow eligible adults to register and vote on Election Day.  In New York, a voter must be register at least 25 days before an election.

Other states use an “automatic voter registration system,” meaning that any time a citizen interacts with a state agency they are automatically registered, unless they affirmatively choose not to.

Only time will tell whether the nation’s seemingly intense interest in the election will be reflected in New York’s performance.  But whatever that outcome, one thing is sure, for those elected to state office, modernizing the New York’s antiquated voting system must be Job 1 when they take their seats.

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