New York is notorious when it comes to a cornerstone of its democracy: voting. For decades, voter turnout rates have been abysmal, typically ranking at, or near, the bottom in the nation. An important reason for New York’s pathetic voter participation rates has been its confusing and cumbersome registration system.
New York has one of the nation’s earliest deadlines for being able to register in advance of an election: 25 days prior to Election Day. And in a peculiar twist, the state’s registration deadline rules dramatically impact voter participation in Presidential primaries.
The Democratic and possible Republican Presidential primaries in New York will be in April 2020. Under current New York law, the last day voters can change their party enrollment for the 2020 Presidential and state primaries is Friday, October 11, 2019.
Voters who seek changes of political party enrollment after that date will discover the change won’t be effective until after the November 2020 elections, not in time to be able to vote in the upcoming Presidential Primaries themselves. For example, voters who wished to change their party enrollment to vote in the 2016 New York Presidential Primary, would have had to apply for a change of enrollment by October 2015, a full 193 days before the Presidential Primary. New York’s rules are widely considered to be the longest time period in the nation.
But that may soon change.
The first indication came last Spring, when the New York State Democratic Party voted unanimously to change the party enrollment date for the 2020 presidential primary, potentially allowing many more non-Democrats to register into the party much closer to election time.
The state party supported shifting the party switch deadline to 60 days before the primary and allowing voters unaffiliated with a party—the many so-called “independents” who make up a significant portion of the voting rolls—to register as Democrats before the April 28th, 2020 primary.
However, officials at the State Board of Elections argued that such a change cannot occur without corresponding changes in law – a view at odds with the State Democrats.
Thus, last session the Legislature acted. Both houses approved legislation that would create a February 14th deadline for previously registered voters to change their party enrollment. This move would allow a voter to switch parties before or on that date. If the change is filed after February 14th, then it won't take effect until seven days after the state primary election in June and after the Presidential primary.
In the past, lawmakers have been leery of passing any laws that could threaten incumbents: a raft of new primary voters presents an element of unpredictability for those holding office. Some elected officials and third parties also were concerned about “party raiding,” the practice of voters ideologically unaligned with a particular political party simply enrolling to make mischief in a primary.
Yet, New York’s practice has created the longest wait time in the nation and the approved legislation would make a significant change.
As mentioned earlier, New York's election calendar has been criticized, especially before and after the 2016 presidential primary. Many unaffiliated voters didn't learn until days or weeks before the primary election that the deadline to change their enrollment had passed months before. The approved legislation changes that from a 190-plus day period to roughly 70-plus days for the Presidential primaries.
With the state Legislature's approval, the bill will eventually be sent to the governor’s office for approval. New Yorkers should hope that the governor acts to reduce New York’s longest-in-the-nation barrier to participation by interested voters.
If the governor vetoes the legislation – or if it doesn’t make it to his desk soon – voters and would-be voters should stick to the existing elections timetable and register in the party whose primary they want to vote in no later than October 11, 2019. In this way, you can be sure to have your voice heard in the elections of 2020.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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