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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: Lawmakers Return To Session, Big Issues Await

New York lawmakers return this week after a break following passage of the state budget in early April.  There are several big issues to tackle, all of which will be debated under the shadow cast by the Assembly’s impeachment inquiry and the Attorney General’s investigation of the governor’s actions.

With a full plate of unfinished non-budget items and an ongoing investigation into the governor, some critically important issues may not get the scrutiny that they deserve before the Legislature wraps up this session, currently scheduled for the second week of June.  One such issue is how best to strengthen voting laws in New York.

New York State recently approved a significant number of measures to reform its elections system. These changes have had a positive impact, most notably by significantly closing the gap between the number of eligible voters and those who are registered. 

However, New York’s voter participation still lags.  While improving, voting rates are still lower than the national average.  In the 2020 general election, a low percentage of registered New Yorkers – 63.4 percent – voted, compared to the national average of 66.7 percent. 

Help could be on the way.  New York lawmakers have two constitutional amendments under consideration.  For the New York State Constitution to be amended, two successive legislatures must approve the measure and then the proposed amendment is put to the voters for final approval.

Both of the constitutional voting reforms have been approved once by both houses, and the state Senate has approved them a second time.  That means it’s up to the Assembly to approve these measures a second time before they can be put before state voters.

The amendments – if approved by the Assembly and then approved by voters this November – would change New York’s voting laws by (1) eliminating the requirement that voters need an excuse to obtain a mail-in absentee ballot; and (2) by allowing new voters to register and vote on election day.  These two measures would significantly improve New York’s voting laws.  The amendment to allow new voters to register and vote on Election Day has been a game changer in boosting voter participation in the states that allow the practice.

Of course, those measures can only be put to the voters for their approval if the Assembly acts

These measures would show the nation that some states are making it easier for eligible Americans to vote – to exercise their constitutional right.  New York can show the nation that voting in America can be conducted openly, easily, and legally. 

Acting to strengthen voting laws would stand in stark contrast to what is happening across the nation.  Throughout the United States, voting rights are under attack.  The recently enacted voter suppression law in Georgia is an obvious attempt to suppress the rights of Black and other minority voters.  And Georgia is not alone.  State legislatures across the country, using the false narrative of widespread fraud and a stolen election, are considering measures to restrict voter access and deny the will of voters.

Action by New York would not only boost state voting laws, but it would also help strengthen the hands of those advocating for similar measures at the national level.

There is hope that Congress might act to create stronger minimum national voter protections.  Legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress to create federal guidelines for voter processes to safeguard voting rights and foster voter participation.  Examples include modernizing elections systems, allowing same-day registrations, mandating early voting, implementing stricter guidelines for removing individuals from voter rolls, and much more.  If national guidelines are passed, they would override many of the anti-democratic voter policies currently in place or being considered in legislatures across the country – including the newly enacted voter suppression law in Georgia.  The House has approved its version of the legislation (H.R.1) and sent the bill to the Senate (S.1).

Opponents to S.1 and supporters of a rollback in voting rights, point to weaknesses in the voting laws in so-called “progressive” states as evidence of hypocrisy.  Thus, advocacy by S.1’s supporters – like New York Senator Schumer – can be undermined by the weak nature of their state’s voting laws.  Thus, strengthening New York’s laws also can bolster the national effort toward reform.

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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