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NY Automatic Voter Registration Bill On Hold Until 2020

A voting machine

A bill to allow automatic voter registration in New York failed in the final days of the legislative session, after a mistake in the language would have allowed undocumented immigrants to vote.  Sponsors say it was an honest mistake, but it caused concern among Republicans in the legislature, and earned Democrats a chiding from Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo. 

The measure would make registering to vote an opt-out rather than an opt-in process.  So when New Yorkers go to the Department of Motor Vehicles, or other state agencies, their names would automatically be sent to their local boards of election to be verified for whether they are eligible to vote in the next election.   

It’s estimated that the change could register 1.5 million new voters in the state, and supporters believe it could improve accuracy in the voter rolls. 

The bill passed the Democratic-led State Senate last month, but when it got to the Assembly, where Democrats are also in control, minority party Republicans discovered a mistake. The bill would inadvertently register undocumented immigrants to vote. 

Susan Lerner, with the government reform group Common Cause, says it was “pure human error.” 

“It was a typo,” Lerner said. “The word ‘not’ was in there when it shouldn’t have been. Very simple.” 

She says it was in a section hastily added during the end of session crunch to ensure that undocumented immigrants’ names did not get sent to the Board of Elections by mistake. 

“It was exactly the opposite,” she said. “It was an attempt to doubly ensure that people who were not eligible would be mistakenly picked up by the system.”  

The Republican Assemblywoman who discovered the error, Nicole Malliotakis, spoke at a recent meeting of the state Republican Party, where immigration policy was a hot button issue. Many Republicans have accused Democrats of wanting to get undocumented immigrants on the voter rolls, something Democrats say is not true. Malliotakis says she believes the language in the bill was deliberate, saying “that was no error.” 

“This is the way that they ensure that they continue to win these elections, not the honest way,” Malliotakis said. “That’s what’s going on here.” 

Democrats say it would not make any sense politically to deliberately try to pass a bill to allow undocumented people to vote, when they know the issue of immigration is so controversial.  

Lerner, with Common Cause, says when other bills have had mistakes, lawmakers approve what’s called a chapter amendment to clean up the language and move on. But she says because this bill involved immigration, it was ultimately pulled. 

“In another bill, it would have passed and been fixed,” Lerner said. 

She says there’s time in the next legislative session for a corrected automatic voter registration bill to be drafted and approved by the state Senate and Assembly in time for the planned 2021 implementation date.  

Governor Cuomo, who has at times had a poor relationship with Democrats in the legislature, called it an “amateur mistake."

“I would’ve had to veto it if they passed it,” said Cuomo. "The way it was written, it would have allowed undocumented people who got a driver's license, the right to vote. I get the political intent, but then there's the legal effect, the governmental effect and the policy." 

The failure of the automatic voter registration measure comes in a session that saw voter rights expanded. Beginning this fall, voters will have up to 10 days before Election Day to go to the polls for early voting. Lawmakers also began the process of changing the state’s constitution to allow mail-in balloting and same day voter registration. 

Lerner says she’s disappointed though that a measure to allow paroled felons to vote failed.  

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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