New York has a long and deserved reputation for having one of the most dysfunctional elections systems in the nation. Election after election, New York has ranked at – or near – the bottom in terms of voter participation.
The reasons for those poor participation rates are complex – a combination of gerrymandering, in which the major parties set political boundaries in ways that limit electoral competition, to persnickety rules for getting on the ballot that keep challengers at bay, to a campaign financing system that allows incumbents to tap into the wallets of those with business before the government, and a voting system that creates unnecessary hurdles to registration and voting itself.
Those laws have seen changes in the past few years. Some of those changes were insignificant and others more meaningful. When it comes to the way New Yorkers register and vote, the changes have been meaningful.
Last year, for example, the Legislature approved first passage of a constitutional amendment that (if approved by the Legislature again and then by a direct vote of New Yorkers) would allow new voters to register and vote on Election Day. So-called “same-day registration” is found in states that have the highest rates of voter participation.
And just last week, the governor approved additional measures that should make it easier for New Yorkers to vote this November.
The first allows eligible voters to cast their ballots by mail instead of going to a polling place. First used during the June primary, the legislation allows voters to cite generalized health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic in requesting an absentee ballot to vote by mail. In the past, New Yorkers had to claim actual illness or disability, or that they’d be out of town on election day in order to vote “absentee.” The new law also eliminates a longstanding provision that prevented voters from requesting absentee ballots until 30 days before Election Day and now allows them to request an absentee ballot anytime.
One of the new laws allows ballots to be deemed valid if postmarked on the day of the 2020 election, November 3. This law also allows the Board of Elections to count all absentee ballots that have the agency’s time stamp showing it was delivered to the Board of Elections no later than the day after the election, even if the ballot does not have a dated postmark. The new law requires that the Board of Elections consider ballots received in that fashion to be considered timely. During the June primary, thousands of ballots were deemed invalid when the post office failed to postmark them.
Lastly, legislative leaders and the governor are discussing giving voters an opportunity to fix mail-in ballots that are considered invalid. The plan would give New York voters a chance to correct missing signatures and other clerical errors so their absentee ballots can be counted after being received and initially rejected by boards of elections.
Last Friday, it was reported that the governor said that he would sign the legislation on notifying voters about problems and allowing them to fix those problems. However, the governor was said to want as-yet-unreported changes in the new law. He stated that the legislation – which would allow the voter seven days to fix a mistake – would be too burdensome for election officials and that he would make temporary changes to that requirement.
Of course, all of these changes rely on well-resourced boards of elections to pull them off. With fewer than three months until the vote, the state must provide the necessary money to ensure that officials can properly run the election. New York’s state elections agency has been universally criticized as incapable of running efficient elections due to the partisan gridlock among its leadership.
But it definitely can’t run efficient elections if it doesn’t have the resources to do so. According to elections officials, the state will need to appropriate $50 million to run this November’s elections. While there is no doubt that the state is facing serious budgetary problems, running elections should be at the top of its “must do” list.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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