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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: New Year Boosts Momentum For Reform

The new Congressional House of Representatives announced last week that it would be advancing legislation to dramatically improve the nation’s democracy.  The proposal, H.R. 1, (which has as yet not been introduced) would constitute a massive overhaul of how elections are run in America.  Here are a few important ways that H.R. 1 improves America’s democracy:

H.R. 1 would improve voter registration by automatically registering citizens to vote any time they interact with a government agency.  Currently, 15 states have programs that track the federal proposal.  Experts predict that if H.R. 1 becomes law an additional 50 million new voters will be added to the rolls.

In addition, the bill would allow for same-day registration, which allows eligible voters to register at the polls on Election Day.  Again, the Congressional plan is based on successful programs at the state level, offered in 16 states.

H.R. 1 would strengthen anti-discrimination powers in how voting is done.  The bill would restore power to the 1965 Voting Rights Act by reversing a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that gutted public oversight of the way elections are run in parts of the nation that have had a history of voting discrimination. 

The bill would also ensure that all voters have at least two weeks of early voting before Election Day, including evening and weekend hours.

H.R. 1 also attacks problems in the nation’s campaign financing system.  It would establish a voluntary, small-donor matching system of public financing for Congressional races and strengthen the existing public financing system for presidential elections.

The bill would reform the way in which legislative districts are redrawn during the redistricting process by mandating that states draw congressional districts using independent redistricting commissions and establishes that they use fair redistricting criteria.

Of course, the legislation still needs approval by the full House and then the U.S. Senate, as well as sign off from the President.  However, the proposal sends a strong signal that improving elections, establishing fair redistricting processes, and reducing the corrupting influence of big money, must be at the top of policy debates nationwide.

In New York similar signals have been sent.  The governor has said that he will propose campaign financing reforms that include a public financing program and measures to improve voter registration, and enhance ethics.

Unlike Washington, Albany can make these – and other important reforms – happen.  The new state Senate, the state Assembly and the governor’s office are all now controlled by the same political party – Democratic.  And they all appear to be on the same page – at least rhetorically – in terms of improving New York State’s democracy.

The key word is “rhetorically.”  Up until now it has been easy to talk up and even pass reforms in one house of the legislature if you knew it faces certain political death in the other house.  Now, such games will be more obvious.  The argument that “partisan” differences squelched reform is a lot harder to make when the government is firmly controlled by one political party. 

Albany’s bag of tricks also includes adopting reforms that are touted as “historic,” yet when the details emerge, the legislation is anything but that.  Often the “historic” reforms are merely putting a shine on the status quo.  That trick is something the public should watch out for.

All that being said, the climate for approval of state measures that are sweeping and significant is unprecedented.  The reform legislation advanced in the U.S. House of Representatives sets the bar for how best to judge whatever Albany does.

New Yorkers have every right to expect that the governor and the legislature will come together to overhaul the way elections are run so that the state’s voter participation rate moves from the nation’s caboose to its engine.  The public has every right to expect approval of corruption-busting measures in the areas of campaign finance (particularly with the creation of a voluntary system of public financing), government contracting, and ethics.

And New Yorkers should expect an improved system of redistricting that places the ultimate power to draw new legislative lines in the hands of an independent commission armed with fair criteria.  The national census starts soon and the state needs to invest in that effort too to ensure a fair count, and redistricting will soon follow after that tally is done. 

The list of needed reforms is long – largely due to the inaction of the past.  But the time to act is now.  It’s an historic opportunity.  And unlike in the past, the political stars in New York finally align for real reform.  The public must make sure that this generation of state political leadership doesn’t duck or squander this opportunity.

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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