Last week, advocates across the nation celebrated “National Voter Registration Day.” In New York, there was little to celebrate.
According to the U.S. Elections Project, in the 2014 election only the state of Indiana had a lower voter turnout than New York. That’s right; New York was 49th in the nation in voter participation. Unfortunately, New York’s miserable performance is not an aberration; New York has consistently ranked as one of the nation’s worst states for voter participation.
There a many reasons for this sad ranking: More competitive races tend to lead to higher voter turnout. The gubernatorial election wasn't ever tight, and even with the Republican challenger winning most of the counties in the state, Governor Cuomo beat him handily in the overall vote total. According to the New York State Board of Elections, about 3.8 million people voted in that election. The Board considers nearly 11 million people eligible to vote. Thus, only about 30 percent of registered voters cast their ballots for the race to determine the most powerful elected official in the state.
Non-competitive elections can smother voter turnout, but there are also barriers to getting registered to vote.
New York State had a “voting eligible population” of about 13.5 million in 2014. The state Board of Elections reports that nearly 11 million New Yorkers are considered registered to vote. That means that roughly 2.5 million eligible citizens were not registered to vote.
What are the barriers to voting in New York?
One big obstacle is the registration process itself. Like much of the rest of the country, New York requires voters to register to vote. In most of the rest of the democratic world, there’s no separate step called registration. It happens automatically. Thus, registering citizens to vote is the responsibility of the government. The voter just has to show up.
In the United States, the responsibility is on the citizen to get registered.
New York has taken some steps to make it easier to register. For example, an eligible voter can go the Board of Elections website (elections.ny.gov) and download a PDF version of the registration form, fill it out and send it in. While a step forward, in the modern age an online system – in which a voter can register electronically – makes more sense.
New York has moved toward a full online voter registration system. It began allowing people with driver's licenses to register to vote online through the Department of Motor Vehicles in 2012. The governor's office said last week that more than 195,000 people had registered to vote that way — 53,000 of them for the first time.
While that’s good, it doesn’t make a big dent in the effort to register the millions of New Yorkers not yet registered who wish to do so. And for those who are not drivers, the DMV program is of little help.
An obvious next step would be to expand that program found in the DMV to all other state agencies. Those other agencies have databases of people they serve and collect a wealth of information – information that's relevant to register to vote. Yet when it's time to register, it’s back with paper and pen to fill out a hard copy form or a PDF version found online. The governor can expand the DMV program to all agencies through his budget plan.
In addition, in New York State, voters are typically required to register 25 days before an election – well before most voters tune into the election debates. The state should allow New Yorkers to register and vote on Election Day. Each year, just as interest in elections and candidates begins to peak, potential voters find that the deadline for registering to vote has already passed. Such a system would dramatically increase voting rates. Voter participation rates in “same-day” states are traditionally among the highest in the country.
New York should allow for full online voter registration, automatic registration of eligible citizens, pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, party changes later in the election cycle, “same-day” registration, and automatic transfers of registrations for New Yorkers who move within the state.
In taking those steps, New York can start to move from national laggard in voter participation, to national leader.
Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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