The Road to Longer-Term Voting Reforms for New York

Last week, Governor Cuomo signed a group of long-overdue voting reforms into law, which included establishing an early voting period, consolidating primary election dates, automatically updating a voter’s registration when they move anywhere within New York State, and allowing 16- and 17- year olds to pre-register to vote.

This was a major victory for voting rights in New York. But what you might not know is that the legislature also passed two additional bills that will provide no-excuse absentee voting and same-day voter registration.

While these reforms passed in both the Assembly and the Senate by an overwhelming majority, they also require an amendment to our State Constitution in order to become law. So, what does that mean for you as a voter?

First of all: let’s talk about how constitutional amendments are made.

Sponsors in both the New York State Senate and Assembly have to introduce the amendment. While the bill is in committee review, the amendment is also referred to the state attorney general, who must provide an opinion in writing within 20 days to the Assembly and the Senate on how the amendment will affect the State Constitution.

Once released from committees, the amendment moves to the floor of each house for a vote. If the amendment is passed in both the Assembly and the Senate, it is then referred to the next regular two-year legislative session, during which the bill must be passed a second time by the newly elected Legislature. Then, the bill is placed on the ballot for statewide referendum. Once a majority of voters approves the amendment, it is incorporated into the New York State Constitution.

New York lawmakers took an important first step by passing both of these pieces of legislation in the Assembly and the Senate last week, but because of the lengthy process required to pass a constitutional amendment, the earliest these bills could be implemented by is 2022.

I thought we already had absentee voting. What’s this “no-excuse absentee voting”?

No-excuse absentee voting would give New Yorkers even more flexibility on when and how they vote, and it’s an important supplement to early voting. Currently, the list of valid excuses for needing an absentee ballot is short and very specific (for example, work and childcare obligations are not considered valid excuses), which means many busy New Yorkers (and let’s face it, what New Yorker isn’t busy?) can miss out on the opportunity to vote. With no-excuse absentee voting, you can vote from home in the weeks leading up to the election.

According to the New York City Bar, allowing New Yorkers to vote by mail would also result in shorter lines at the polls on Election Day. The National Conference of State Legislatures also notes that the option to vote from home allows voters to research the candidates on their own time, instead of rushing to make a decision at the polls. This is especially important for local elections and ballot measures that may not receive substantial mainstream media coverage. So, rather than requiring voters to arrange their busy schedules around an upcoming election, New York State can allow voters to vote when it’s convenient for them.

So how does same-day registration work?

Every election cycle, there are thousands of voting eligible New Yorkers who miss the registration deadline and are unable to participate. Same-day voter registration (SDR) would eliminate this barrier to voting and allow any qualified New Yorker to register to vote and cast a ballot in one day. Every Election Day, especially for primary elections, voters report that they are not in the poll books. This can happen for a variety of reasons, from a recent move or name change, to an incorrect political party registration (it’s also worth noting that New York has a closed primary system, meaning that if you don’t register for a political party, you won’t be able to participate in a primary election). But these issues can be addressed with same-day registration.

For example, according to a study by Demos, after Iowa adopted SDR, “provisional ballots dropped from 15,000 in the 2004 presidential election to less than 5,000 in 2008—a 67 percent decline.” And in North Carolina, adopting SDR in 2008 led to 23,000 fewer provisional ballots. In the same report, Demos also notes that with same-day registration, voters can, instead of casting provisional ballots, “simply update [their] registration records or register anew at the polling place and vote a ballot that will be counted.” In fact, “four of the top five states for voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election all offered Same-Day Registration. Average voter turnout was over 10 percentage points higher in SDR states than in other states.”

Sounds great! What’s next?

If passed by a constitutional amendment, these reforms will continue to improve election administration and make voting easier for all eligible New Yorkers by tackling the issues experienced in every election cycle.

To learn more about the other reforms we support, click here to check out our recent white paper, “A Voting Reform Agenda for New York.” And to find out about how the other pieces of legislation passed recently that will affect your voting experience starting this year, read our blog post from last week here.

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