Blair Horner: New York’s Voting System Set For A Long Overdue Overhaul

Jan 14, 2019

We have all seen the grim voting statistics:  New York – considered by many to be a progressive state – has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the nation. 

The numbers tell the story.  New York State had a voting eligible population of nearly 13.8 million in 2018.  However, only 12.7 million New Yorkers were listed by the State Board of Elections as either active or inactive voters for the same time period.  That means over one million eligible citizens were not registered to vote.   Obstacles to registration are one reason why there is such a significant shortfall.

But voter registration obstacles aren’t the only problem, as the impact on voter participation shows.  In the 2018 general election, a stunningly low percentage of registered New Yorkers – 45.2 percent –voted.  A review of the U.S. Elections Project’s data showed New York to have one of the ten worst turnouts in the nation.   And that ranking is consistent with New York’s voter performance over the recent decades.

When New York is near – or at – the back of the nation in voting, why hasn’t the state acted?  One reason is that partisan differences on the issue have blocked needed reforms.  Another reason is that incumbents get elected by those who do vote – incumbents may fear that reforms that bring in new voters may put them at risk.

Yet, the rest of the nation has moved ahead, even when faced with similar circumstances.  And their successes show the path for New York to follow.  For example, one way to modernize New York’s voting system is to allow busy voters the opportunity to cast their ballots early.  In 38 states and the District of Columbia, any qualified voter may cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to Election Day.  No excuse or justification is required.  In New York, in order to vote by mail, a voter needs to request a ballot in advance and provide an excuse. 

In the modern age where parents may have to juggle work, child care, and other family obligations, allowing voters to vote early and not just on a Tuesday in November is reasonable and necessary.

Another reform option is to allow young people to register to vote prior to their 18th birthday.  18 year olds are adults and have the right to vote, but allowing 16 and 17 year olds the option of pre-registering helps get young people engaged in the civic process.

In a state with abysmally low voter participation rates, only slightly more than half of New York’s youngest citizens are registered to vote.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 47% of New York’s 18-24-year-old citizens were registered for the November 2016 Presidential election.  However, once registered, large numbers of young people turn out at the polls.  According to the Census Bureau, 75% of New York’s 18-24 year olds who were on the rolls voted that year.

It is common-sense to enable students to pre-register at 16 or 17 years of age—the age where school is still compulsory and many come in contact with the Department of Motor Vehicles for licenses or non-driver’s identification cards. 

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia permit preregistration beginning at 16 years old and four states permit preregistration beginning at 17 years old. 

The most effective method for registering new voters would be to establish a system that allows voters to register and vote on Election Day.  Fifteen states plus the District of Columbia offer “same-day registration” so any qualified resident of the state can go to register to vote and cast a ballot all in that 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.  Here in New York, campaigns for statewide and local offices barely attract public attention before October.  By the time voters begin to focus on the election, the deadline has already passed. 

These reforms – and more – are expected to pass the Legislature this week.  The package of voter reforms that will be taken up includes other changes to make voting easier, although more steps are necessary, particularly when it comes to automatic registration at government agencies and ensuring that those formerly incarcerated are able to register and vote.

For way too long, New Yorkers have had to endure obstacles to voting and a disgraceful pay-to-play campaign financing system.  And to add insult to injury, for decades we’ve seen no movement for reform out of Albany.  The new Senate Majority and their colleagues in the Assembly and the Governor’s mansion deserve credit for taking the first meaningful steps to strengthen New York’s democracy.  This down payment on democracy should send a strong signal to New Yorkers that the days of voter frustration and cynicism may be coming to an end.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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