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Democracy: a work in progress

Concern over the fate of American democracy hit a fever pitch after the coup attempt by former President Trump following his election loss in 2020. Americans across the nation expressed their worries to pollsters earlier this year when it was reported that more than half of all American adults believed democracy is not working well.

The attempt to overturn a fair and free election was a first in America. The Trump-inspired violence that has followed understandably put the nation on edge, so much so that a bipartisan agreement was included in last week’s $1.7 trillion budget spending bill. Tucked inside the 4,155-page budget plan was a provision designed to clarify federal law regarding the process for certifying a Presidential Election. That provision clarifies that the vice president has a purely ceremonial role in the proceedings during an Electoral College count to determine a Presidential victor.

The new provision also raises the bar for objecting to a state's slate of electors. As it stands now, it takes just one member of the House and one senator to challenge a state's electors and send both chambers into a potentially days-long debate period, even without legitimate concerns. The new legislation would raise the threshold for an objection to 20% of the members of each chamber.

Of course, that change alone will not bar an unscrupulous and corrupt individual from scheming to overturn an American election, but it does provide clarity in one aspect of the system.

Here in New York, the public has endured long-simmering problems in its democracy, most notably voter registration and elections administration laws. Both are run by the two major political parties who have too often viewed elections administration to achieve partisan advantage – even at the expense of the public interest. That view has contributed to New York being at or near the bottom of the nation in terms of voter participation.

Starting in 2019 that began to change. Reformers – most notably in the state Senate – spearheaded changes that now have New York following best practices found in other states.

Last week, another reform was approved by the governor that will make it easier for new voters to register. Under New York’s constitution, no new voter can register to vote within ten days of the election. Yet, the state law pulled that deadline back to no sooner than 25 days prior to an election. In other words, elected officials had made it harder for new voters to register. The change last week lowers the registration bar to match the constitutional minimum – ten days.

This is the latest installment of changes approved this year. Earlier the governor approved the “John Lewis Voting Rights Act” which removed barriers to the ballot box through new protections for voters who have been historically disenfranchised – members of racial, ethnic, and language-minority groups.

Earlier this month, the governor approved legislation to address the so-called "wrong church" rule. If a voter fills out an affidavit ballot at the wrong polling place but is in the county and state Assembly district where registered, their ballot will be accepted. Before the change, these votes weren't counted because the voter was at the incorrect polling place.

There is still a lot to be done. Despite numerous improvements to the state’s elections systems, voter turnout is still below the national average (better than it was but still trailing the nation).

One example of a voting best practice that New York should embrace is to rely on mail-in ballots to supplement voters going to the polls. In an age where some states such as Oregon successfully moved to conducting entire elections via mail, it is time to rethink the state’s policies with an eye towards expanding absentee voter opportunities to increase voter participation. Oregon’s experience shows that widespread use of mailed-in ballots has not resulted in fraud but has increased overall turnout to among the highest in the nation.

Much of the rest of the nation is moving ahead in this area: 28 states and the District of Columbia permit any qualified voter to vote absentee without offering an excuse.

Here in New York, the COVID-pandemic allowed this option. New York State’s Constitution allows voters to obtain a mail-in absentee ballot but only for specific reasons – illness and travel. Using pandemic emergency powers, New York broadened voter access to mail in ballots, thus protecting voters and poll workers from unnecessary exposure to the virus.

Now that those emergency powers have now run their course, will the governor and state lawmakers take the necessary step to keeping this popular provision on the books?

When lawmakers return next month, strengthening the state’s democracy should be a priority. Whatever gets done next session, continuing to improve voting practices – including making it easier to vote through the mail – must be on the front burner.

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.