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Voting in New York State

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By Lisa Scott

The League of Women Voters encourages informed and active participation in government and thus prioritizes voter registration and getting out the vote. 

The 2020 elections had a record shattering turnout —  158,254,139 ballots were cast for President from 66.7% of eligible voters. Does this mean that we have achieved our goals or can look forward to even greater election participation and thus more representative government in the coming years? The answer is definitely no! Here’s why …

Many Americans believe that voting rights and laws are derived from the Constitution and federal law. That’s only partially true and mostly just for federal elections. Voters’ lives are much more affected by state election law, which as was seen in the 2020 election results. Add our (decennial) census and the absolute power (in most states) of the state legislature to “reapportion” Congressional and other district lines. You now have a recipe for institutional power monopolies; reducing the ability for voters to actually select their representatives (the elected officials choose their voters = gerrymandering) in free and fair elections. Many state legislatures have already introduced hundreds of new voter suppression laws aimed at decreasing voter turnout.

As residents of New York State, many of us were shocked to learn that our state voting laws and constitution are an anachronistic embarrassment. Other states had pioneered and proved the value and reliability and security of 100% mail-in voting, many days of early voting and no-excuse absentee ballots. In 2019 New Yorkers had our first early voting opportunities in a local election year with sparse turnout. 

Only a few months later, COVID lockdowns and quarantines changed everything. Governor Cuomo issued a state of emergency allowing him to issue many executive orders, some of which liberalized our election laws and processes. However, these need to be enacted as state law in order to be made permanent.

The Senate met in January to pass a package of absentee voting reforms and two constitutional amendments related to voting: 

Speeding Up the Absentee Ballot Counting Process: This bill, S.1027, sponsored by Deputy Majority Leader Senator Michael Gianaris, amends various provisions of the Election Law in order to allow for expedited review and canvassing of absentee ballots without compromising the integrity of elections.

Preventing Disenfranchisement of Absentee Voters: This bill, S.253, sponsored by Senate Elections Committee Chair, Senator Zellnor Myrie, prohibits voiding absentee ballots on technicalities where intent of voters is clear and the law has been substantially complied with, including where there are stray marks or the ballot is undated but is time stamped by the Board of Elections.

Permanently Authorizing Absentee Ballot Drop Boxes: This bill, S.492, sponsored by Senator Brad Hoylman, authorizes the Board of Elections to establish absentee ballot drop-off locations or drop-boxes to provide voters with a convenient and secure option for delivering their absentee ballots.

Increasing Transparency and Information about Absentee Ballots through a Tracking System: This bill, S.1028, sponsored by Senator Leroy Comrie, ensures that all voters in the state have access to absentee ballot tracking by requiring the New York State Board of Elections to create a statewide absentee ballot tracking system for absentee voters to ensure that their vote is counted in the election while allowing counties and the New York City Board of Elections to also maintain their own absentee tracking systems.

Implementing Permanent Authorization for Applying for Absentee Ballots Online: This bill, S.632, sponsored by Senator Robert Jackson, permanently allows voters to apply for absentee ballots online and allows absentee ballots postmarked through Election Day by making permanent Chapter 91 of the Laws of 2020, which sunset on December 31, 2020. Under current Election Law, applications may only be made by mail or fax.

Creating Accountability for Timely Receipt of Absentee Ballots: This bill, S.516, sponsored by Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, establishes mandatory timeframes for processing of absentee ballot applications and ballots by Boards of Elections based on when the application was received.

Enabling Earlier Applications for Absentee Ballots: This bill, S.631, sponsored by Senator Julia Salazar, permits Boards of Elections to receive absentee ballot applications earlier than thirty days before the applicable Election Day by making permanent Chapter 138 of the Laws of 2020, which sunset on December 31, 2020.

Ensuring Voters Timely Receipt of Absentee Ballots: This bill, S.264, sponsored by Senator Zellnor Myrie, sets deadline for absentee ballot applications sent by mail to 15 days before the election, up from 7 days, to better allow for voters timely receiving their absentee ballots.

No-Excuse Absentee Voting Constitutional Amendment: This legislation, S.360, sponsored by Senator Leroy Comrie, amends the State Constitution to allow for any voter to vote by absentee without an excuse.*

Same-day Voter Registration Constitutional Amendment: This legislation, S.517, sponsored by Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, removes 10 day deadline to submit registration.*

*Both constitutional amendments were passed by the Senate and Assembly in the last session but are also required to be passed by both houses during this session. If they are passed again they will be placed on the ballot in November as voter referendums.

At this time we are unsure when the Assembly will be taking up these reforms. In the last three legislative sessions, the Senate has made election reform one of their early priority issues. The Assembly typically does not take up these bills until after the state budget has passed. (Note: Gov. Cuomo submitted the budget in late January, the 2021 fiscal year starts April 1.)

Lisa Scott is president 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 or call 631-862-6860.

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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.