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NY Senate Pass Voter Access Bills

New York state Capitol
Jim Levulis

Democrats who lead the New York state Senate approved several measures on Thursday to make it easier to vote. But a newly energized Republican minority wanted to talk about other topics, such as worries about undocumented immigrants voting and whether to repeal recently enacted bail reforms.

On the second day of the legislative session, the Senate lost no time in acting on a number of bills to allow more voter participation. 

One would make it easier for college students to vote, by requiring a polling station on a campus if there are 300 or more registered voters at the school. 

Another exempts elementary and secondary schools from having to host polling sites for the 10 days of early voting before each election, after schools said it was too disruptive.  

And another bill requires counties to locate at least one polling place its largest urban center. The measure stems from last November’s election, when Rensselaer County located its two early polling sites in a suburbs and a rural area, but did not allow voting within the city of Troy.   

But the most controversial measure that the Senate approved is one that would permit automatic voter registration at state agencies, including the DMV. It was derailed in the last session because it inadvertently might have led to non-citizens being automatically registered when they applied for driver’s licenses. 

A new law that took effect in mid-December, known as the Green Light law, allows undocumented immigrants to apply for the licenses.  

Sponsor and Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris, a Queens Democrat, says the errors in the bill are now fixed, and won’t lead to non-citizens voting in New York. He says it’s a “myth” that large numbers of undocumented immigrants aim to vote in the state’s elections. 

“There’s some suggestion that there’s a group of people out there who are nefariously organizing to register and go vote under penalty of deportation," said Gianaris. 

He says there is no evidence that is occurring in New York or in other states that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers licenses. 

“If someone is so motivated to do that, they can walk into the Board of Elections right now and improperly register to vote and they would be subject to appropriate penalties,” he said. “All we are trying to do here is to make it easier for people to vote.” 

But minority party Republicans, including Senator Robert Ortt, of Western New York, are unconvinced.

“I don’t know if there are legions of people who are festering to register illegally,” Ortt said. “But I do know that the laws we are passing in this chamber, including this one, are certainly making far more likely that someone who is here illegally, will be registered to vote.”   

Senator Gianaris says there are safeguards. He says DMV staff will look over the voter registration forms for errors before they are sent to the Board of Elections. 

The voting-related measures are not the only topics that the GOP would like to revisit. 

Senate Republican Leader John Flanagan spoke on a hostile amendment proposed by the GOP that would repeal a criminal justice reform that took effect on January 1 and ends most forms of cash bail.

“You enacted criminal justice reform that we think is awful,” Flanagan told Democrats.  

Flanagan and other Republicans, as well as District Attorneys and County Sheriffs, say the law has led to repeat offenders, including bank robbers and those accused of manslaughter, to be freed on their own recognizance. 

“This is going to be an unmitigated disaster,” Flanagan predicted. “The public is less safe today as a result of the laws that were enacted last year.” 

“This is germane,” Flanagan said of the amendment. 

Democrats did not agree that the amendment was germane, though, and it was voted down along party lines.  

Senate Republicans promised to continue to raise the subject on the Senate floor every chance they get.  

Some Democratic Senators, and Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, have said they are open to making some changes to the criminal justice reforms, including possibly giving judges more discretion on when to set bail. But in order for that to happen, the Assembly would also have to agree. And so far, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie says he has some concerns. 

He says in the past, two people charged with the same crime, could have different bail amounts set by the same judge, sometimes depending on their race. 

“Judicial discretion invites back in bias,” said Heastie. “Right now the way the law is written it is based on the crime you are accused of, as to whether you are bail eligible or not or, whether you should be released.” 

The Assembly did not act on the early voting measures. Heastie says his Democratic members are committed to them, but will take them up later in the session.

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