By Judie Gorenstein
On Election Day this November, 31.9 percent of registered voters in Suffolk County turned out to vote in an off-year election. Although this means that less than one-third of those registered actually voted, this was more than 50 percent greater than the turnout four years ago, when only 20.9 percent voted (presidential/congressional elections consistently have greater turnout in even-numbered years).
This substantial increase in the 2017 turnout was the result of an organized opposition to the proposed constitutional convention. For the most part, the opponents were concerned that they might lose their rights to collective bargaining and pension rights for teachers and other public workers. People are always energized when they fear they might lose something they have, when they believe their rights will be taken away, and turn this energy into action and voting.
What about being motivated to fight for rights you do not have? The women suffragists were highly motivated to fight for the right to vote. In fact, they began in 1848 in Seneca Falls and finally got the right to vote in New York State in 1917; 100 years ago — three years before all women in the United States got that right. Currently, however, New York has one of the lowest voter turnouts, ranking 41 out of 50 states.
It’s true that we do not have laws deliberately designed to discourage voting or restrict those who can vote (such as states whose selective permissible IDs allow gun permits but not college IDs, which disenfranchise specific groups of voters, or require special IDs for those without driver’s licenses, which are only issued in a small number of locations statewide). But we discourage voting in less obvious ways:
• New York is one of the minority of states that does NOT have early voting, which allows voters to go to the polls on selected days prior to Election Day. Allowing people to vote on weekends before Election Day helps those whose work schedules prohibit them from getting to the polls on the first Tuesday in November.
• We are in the minority of states that do NOT have no-excuse absentee voting. Currently, voters must attest that they have a legitimate reason (travel, illness, etc.) to ask for an absentee ballot.
• We have one of the longest time requirements between registration and voting. A New York State voter has to register 25 days before the election. And anyone who wants to vote in a party primary must be registered in that party over a year before the primary (since New York is a “closed primary” state).
• The full-faced ballot that the state requires is difficult to read (requiring magnifying glasses at each polling station) and confusing in design.
• In addition, in even years when we have both state and federal primaries, these are scheduled during two different months; and when there is a presidential election, we add a third primary day. This is not only costly but confuses voters and leads to low voter turnout.
• With our archaic election laws, it is no wonder that New York State voter turnout is low!
Voters who supported the constitutional convention (Proposition 1 on the 2017 ballot) saw it as an opportunity to modernize our election and other laws through citizen involvement in updating the state’s constitution. Since that proposition was defeated, laws can only be changed through the existing legislative process in Albany. This means that bills to change election laws must pass in both the New York Assembly and the New York Senate in two consecutive years.
Can this happen? Yes, it certainly can.
Will it happen? Remember that our state senators and assembly members were elected with the current laws and redistricting that favor the incumbents. New York’s incumbent return rate is one of the highest in the nation, hovering close to 95 percent. Thus, to convince them to introduce and pass bills to change the laws, there has to be a groundswell from the public demanding such change.
Voters need to advocate for the modernization of our election laws and lobby their legislators to introduce and vote for bills that enfranchise voters. We need no-excuse absentee ballots. We need early voting. We need to be able to register closer to the day of the election. In fact, same-day registration would be preferable. Voters must do their part to bring about these changes.
What can you do? First, know who your elected New York State officials are. The League of Women Voters of Suffolk County produces a Directory of Public Officials annually, which can be viewed on the LWV of Suffolk County website: www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org and print copies are also available. Once you identify your state senator and assembly member, contact them.
You can join and participate in the good government groups that already exist advocating for change. You can go the LWV New York State website www.lwvny.org and click on advocacy and see what the League has been doing. You can also organize your own group — get others who like you are civically minded and want to bring about change. It is true that right now, big money plays a major role in influencing policy on all levels, but remember it is only people who can vote. Speak up, encourage others to do so and have your voices heard. Our democracy works best when everyone participates.
Judie Gorenstein is vice president for voter services of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email [email protected] or call 631-862-6860.