Clumsily designed ballots. An antiquated registration process. Confusing deadlines and outdated laws. Long lines and no early voting. New York State—caricatured as a bastion of progressive politics—has some of the most retrograde voting laws and practices in the nation. Reports of dysfunction from Thursday’s primary only add to the evidence: New York is disenfranchising its citizens.
How dire is it? A few numbers. Only 57 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2016 presidential election, ranking the Empire State 41st in the nation for turnout. In the last midterm election, turnout statewide hit an abysmal 34 percent, almost the lowest in the country. In New York City, just 12 percent of eligible voters showed up for the 2017 mayoral primary.
The problem isn’t energy or enthusiasm: New Yorkers are as tuned into politics as anyone. The problem is the system.
First and worst, New York uses an outdated voter-registration method that puts the onus on residents to stamp and mail paper forms, and update their information whenever they move out of county. It’s error-prone and inefficient.
New York is also one of just 13 states where early voting is unavailable. Voters may only cast an absentee ballot in very limited circumstances, making it one of the most restrictive processes in the country.
Want to switch parties? If you don’t register the change months ahead of time, you’re out of luck: No primary voting for you. (Even the president’s daughter missed that rule.) On top of that, the state fails to offer same-day registration.
One frustrating aspect of the situation in New York is that statewide politicians have repeatedly paid lip service to ideas such as early voting, only to knock those proposals out of the state budget months later. And there has been little effort to change some of the state’s most confusing voting quirks—New York is the only state that holds its federal and state primaries on different days, costing millions for an unnecessary, additional day of balloting. (That’s why there’s no shame if you thought to yourself: “Wait, New York’s holding a primary today? I thought that already happened.” It did!)
All this comes alongside a disconcerting degree of bad administration. Last year, the state was singled out by the Department of Justice for its failures to comply with federal laws designed to facilitate voter registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles. During the 2016 presidential primary, the nonpartisan Election Protection voter hotline received more calls from New Yorkers than from states with notoriously restrictive systems like Texas and Georgia because of delayed poll openings, equipment malfunctions, and party-registration errors.
Politicians in Albany seeking to protect their incumbency have little motivation to change these outmoded rules. And the state’s Board of Elections has been mired in partisan gridlock for years (not unlike the Federal Election Commission in Washington). This dysfunction has repercussions beyond the state’s borders: So long as New York’s voting system is such a mess, states like Ohio, North Carolina, and Wisconsin will use it as a reference point to justify their own flawed systems. In fact, they already have.
But perhaps, with an empowered electorate and momentum growing for reforms to our election systems, that could all change. Here’s what needs to be done.
This year, we’ve already seen a wave of states enact a reform we at the Brennan Center pioneered more than a decade ago: automatic voter registration. It’s a deceptively simple change where information you provide at government offices like the DMV is automatically used to create or update your voter registration, if you are eligible to vote. You can always choose to opt out.
Since Oregon became the first state in the nation to implement AVR in 2016, it has seen registration rates quadruple at DMV offices.
AVR is secure. It’s cheap. And it keeps our registration rolls accurate (unlike misguided purges, including the one in 2016 that improperly deleted more than 200,000 names from the voter rolls in New York City). It’s also crucial at a time when voters are rightly concerned about hacking and interference in our elections.
While we’re at it, New York needs to adopt early voting and same-day registration, change its party-affiliation and ballot-design rules, and reform the Board of Elections.
The country’s aversion to the status quo has put politicians across New York State on notice. Voters are fed up with corruption and abuse, and they’re tired of having to struggle just to make their voices heard. Voter suppression and allegations of voter impersonation are having a backlash effect—our research shows that this year, state legislatures have introduced more bills to expand the right to vote than bills that would restrict it.
Politicians keep barriers in place for a simple reason: They think the status quo benefits them. On Election Day and after it, through continued involvement and participation, voters have to send the message that it doesn’t.
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