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

This week is the deadline to register for those who wish to vote in the 2019 election in New York State.  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:  New York State had a Voting Eligible Population (VEP) of nearly 13.8 million in 2018.  VEP is the most reasonable measure of participation and includes citizens over 18 who are not incarcerated for a felony.  However, 12.7 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 2018 general election, a stunningly low percentage of registered New Yorkers – an estimated 45.2 percent – voted.  A review of the U.S. Elections Project analysis showed New York to be among the worst in the nation in terms of eligible voter turnout.  

When New York is near – or at – the back of the nation in voting, why hasn’t the state acted to improve things instead of making them worse?  One reason is that partisan differences on the issue have blocked needed reforms.  Another reason is that incumbents get elected by those who do vote – incumbents may fear that reforms that bring in new voters may put them at risk.

After years of failing to act, Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature this year began to attack some of the long-festering problems in New York’s system of elections.

Among the changes, lawmakers agreed on legislation to allow for early voting and to allow 16 and 17 year olds to register to vote prior to their 18th birthday.  They also agreed to the first passage of a constitutional amendment that – if approved a second time and then approved by the voters in a referendum – would allow voters to register and vote on Election Day.  Fifteen states plus the District of Columbia offer “same-day registration” so any qualified resident of the state can go to register to vote and cast a ballot all on the same day. 

Two weeks ago, the governor approved legislation that took another step toward modernizing New York’s elections.  New York has one of the nation’s earliest deadlines for being able to register in advance of an election.  And in a peculiar twist, the state’s registration deadline rules dramatically impact voter participation in Presidential primaries.

The Democratic and possible Republican Presidential primaries in New York will be in April 2020.    Until recently, the last day voters could change their party enrollment for the 2020 Presidential and state primaries was Friday, October 11, 2019, making New York the longest wait time in the nation.

Under the legislation approved by the governor, New Yorkers will have until February 14, 2020 to decide if they wish to change political parties in order to vote in April’s Presidential primary.

For years, New York's election calendar has been criticized, especially before and after the 2016 presidential primary.  Many unaffiliated voters didn't learn until days or weeks before the primary election that the deadline to change their enrollment had passed months before.  The approved legislation changes that from a 190-plus day period to roughly 70-plus days for the Presidential primaries.  Still a long time to wait, but far better than the current situation.

Of course, it’s always best to register in advance of the deadline for this November’s election – October 11, 2019.  In this way, you can be sure to have your voice heard in the elections of 2019 and 2020.

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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