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NYS Senate approves voting expansion measures

New York state Capitol
Jim Levulis

The New York State Senate has approved a package of bills to expand voter access, after voters in November rejected two ballot proposals to make it easier to vote.

The bills would continue expanded absentee ballot voting that was allowed earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, and permit voters to cite the virus as a reason to skip going to the polls. They would instead receive mail-in ballots for the spring school board elections, the June primary and November’s general election.

The measures would also shrink the voter registration deadline from 25 days before an election to 10 days. They would also create more early voting locations and allow for portable polling places in some counties. There also would be more absentee ballot drop-off locations. And, New Yorkers could more easily register to vote at a second residence within the state.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says the measure would further the Democrats’ goal to increase access to voting. She says the aim is to “amplify the voices of each New York voter."

Two of the measures are aimed at remedying the November defeat of two ballot propositions. One would have allowed the Legislature to enact universal mail-in voting, and the other would help pave the way for same-day voter registration.

They were rejected by voters after opponents, including the state’s top Republican and Conservative Party leaders, conducted a well-organized campaign against the measures. The state’s Democratic Party Chair, Jay Jacobs, declined to get involved in promoting the ballot items.

State Senator Brian Kavanagh, the sponsor of the bill to decrease the voter registration deadline from 25 to 10 days, says without a change to the state’s constitution, the Legislature cannot decrease that time limit any further. But he says with the state’s policy to permit early voting up to 12 days before an election, it would be possible to both register and vote on the same day.

“It does get us close to same-day registration,” Kavanagh said.

Stewart-Cousins blames the defeat of the propositions on the influence of big-money donors, who contributed to the opposition, and what she says was a “misinformation” campaign. Conservative billionaire Ron Lauder is among the contributors who helped finance a television ad campaign.

Responding to a reporter’s question, the Senate leader says she does not think passing bills that make it easier to vote in any way defies the will of the voters.

“Because somehow, democracy, in its greatest form, which includes letting citizenry vote, has become very, very frightening to a segment of the population,” Stewart-Cousins said.

Governor Kathy Hochul, in her State of the State message, said she supports changing the voter registration deadline to 10 days. She says she’d like to give voters a second chance to vote on propositions for same-day registration and universal mail-in balloting.

She’d also like to go a step further and enact a state-level voting rights act, modeled after federal legislation, that would enhance protections against voter suppression, establish new protections against voter intimidation and deception, and improve language access for voters.

A spokesman for the state Assembly could not give a timeline for when the Senate’s measures might be acted on in that house.

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.