New York Passes Much-Needed Voting Reforms

On January 14th, New York lawmakers approved a group of voting reforms including establishing an early voting period, consolidating primary 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. Today, Governor Cuomo signed these bills into law, signaling a transformation of election administration practices in New York State.

This is a major moment for voting rights in New York. Our state is consistently rated one of the lowest turnout states, ranking 41st in the country for voter turnout in 2016, but with the passage of these important reforms, it will now be easier for all eligible New Yorkers to participate in our elections. Read on to learn more about how these long overdue reforms will change how New Yorkers vote!

Early Voting

In the 2016 presidential election, New Yorkers had to vote on a single Tuesday while voters in more than 35 other states got to cast their ballots early. In fact, early voting is so popular that, in 2016, one out of three people voted early rather than waiting until Election Day. Early voting provides voters, many of whom juggle work and family obligations, with much-needed convenience and flexibility. According to a November 2018 poll from the Pew Research Center, “71% of Americans said that any voter should have the option to vote early or absentee without having to document a reason.”

Starting this fall, you’ll have ten extra days to get to a poll site and cast your ballot—including the two weekends before Election Day. An early voting period during the weekend would mean that more voters, especially those who can’t take time off work to vote during the week, would be able to participate in our elections. According to “Early Voting: What Works,” a report from the Brennan Center, “weekends were commonly peak [early voting] periods, particularly in large counties that are major population centers—and in those counties, the last Saturday of [early voting] often constituted the highest turnout day.”

Early voting will also help you vote faster and more efficiently. The Brennan Center notes that “early voting eases Election Day congestion, leading to shorter lines and improved poll-worker performance. It allows election officials to correct registration errors and fix voting system glitches earlier.” Additionally, a Pew Research Center poll conducted among voters who participated in 2016 shows that “good poll workers boost voters’ confidence in elections,” and an early voting period allows poll workers to “gain valuable experience, which makes them more efficient at handling the higher volume on Election Day” (“Early Voting: What Works”). In short: early voting is great for voters like you, and also great for election administrators who would otherwise be tasked with handling a huge amount of voters on one single day, especially during high-interest elections like presidential ones.

Combined Primaries

State lawmakers also approved legislation to combine the state and federal primaries in June, meaning you will only have to vote in three elections, instead of four, during the 2020 election cycle. For context: in 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice won a lawsuit in New York that required the state to move the federal primary to June from September to ensure that military and overseas voters would receive their absentee ballots in time for the general election, in compliance with the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act. As a result, however, New Yorkers have had to vote in multiple primaries every year. In fact, during the 2018 midterm election cycle, ours was the only state in the nation that held separate state and federal primaries.

Holding multiple primaries in one year places an unnecessary burden on New Yorkers who want to make their voices heard and results in voter fatigue, which occurs when voters are asked to vote too often. Studies show that Western countries with a high number of elections per year, like the United States and Switzerland, have consistently low voter turnout, and many political scientists attribute this trend to voter fatigue. Having both the federal and state primaries in June will improve New Yorkers’ voting experience throughout the election cycle by reducing the confusion surrounding multiple primary dates and voter fatigue among New Yorkers.

Preregistration of 16- and 17-Year-Olds

Individuals 16 years or older can now preregister to vote, and once they turn 18, their registration will automatically become active. Additionally, local boards of election will now be required to promote student voter registration and preregistration efforts. This will not only make it easier for younger voters to participate, but also help reduce the number of voters who register just before the registration deadline, given that most new registrants in any given election year tend to be younger. For example, in both 2016 and 2017, over half of the new registrants in New York City were under 30, and 18-year-olds accounted for the largest segment of new voters.

Studies show that voting is a habit-forming activity, and in order to encourage a lifelong habit of voting and civic engagement among younger voters, it is important to introduce prospective voters to the process as soon as possible. Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds, who likely live at home and attend high school, to preregister to vote gives parents, teachers, and administrators an opportunity to encourage civic behavior among young people even before they can legally vote at the age of 18. In fact, “preregistration seems to have a measurable impact on voter registration when certain actions are taken to reach out to young people” (“Voter Pre-Registration,” Fair Vote). For example, as noted in one 2009 study, “in Florida, Supervisor of Elections staff came to schools and conducted registration drives through individual classroom visits or school-wide assemblies,” while in Hawaii, “election officials have mailed registration forms to every eligible student and coordinated with volunteers to organize registration drives.” With preregistration, our city can do far more to encourage civic participation among young voters while many of them are still in school.

Universal Transfer of Voter Registration Records (Portable Registration)

This means that, if you move anywhere within New York State, you will now be able to vote in your new election district without updating your address. Once a year, boards of elections will automatically transfer registrations for voters who have moved anywhere within New York State, like they currently do for voters who move within their county or within New York City. Additionally, if you cast an affidavit ballot in your new election district, it will now be counted as a vote, instead of an update to your existing registration.

As many of us know, moving is hard. And when you move, updating your voter registration is often the last thing on your mind, and this often results in out-of-date voter information. In fact, research by the Pew Center on the States shows that “approximately 24 million—one of every eight—voter registrations in the United States are no longer valid or are inaccurate.” Inaccuracies in the voter rolls cause confusion at the poll sites, often forcing voters to cast an affidavit ballot. These inaccuracies can also further disenfranchise voters by placing them on an inactive voter list by mistake. Voters are placed on the inactive list when they fail to respond to a residence confirmation mailing, but if a voter has moved without updating their address, it’s likely that they may never receive the inactive notice, making it impossible to confirm their residency. More seriously, this weakens voters’ confidence in our electoral process, which can have incredibly negative consequences for our democracy. Portable voter registration will make it possible to track and update changes to a voter’s address when they move within the state, eliminating the need to submit a change of address form.

There’s still more work to be done in order to make New York a leader in voting reforms. But this legislation will go a long way towards addressing some of the biggest issues New Yorkers experienced at the polls during the 2018 midterm elections (and in previous elections), such as long lines, broken scanners, and confusion about their party enrollment. As one of the most populous and diverse cities in the country, New York City needs voting reforms that make sense for New Yorkers. We hope this is just the start of revolutionizing how New Yorkers vote.

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”.

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