It is Time to Fix New York’s Voting Laws

ADAM GINSBURG: It is no secret that New York has been branded a bastion of Progressive politics—and, in many ways, this reputation is warranted. In New York registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin, the state has not voted for a Republican in a presidential election in more than 30 years, and in the past decade, the legislature legalized same sex marriage (in 2011, before it was nationally popular), passed restrictive gun laws, instituted a form of paid family leave, raised the minimum wage to $15, and initiated a revolutionary program for free college tuition at state schools.

Despite its progressive bona fides, there is one major policy sphere in which New York’s reputation does not match reality: the realm of voting laws.

In New York, there is no early voting (a policy that 37 states have), no automatic voter registration (legislation that allows voters to become automatically registered to vote when they have any contact with the DMV), inflexible restrictions on obtaining absentee ballots, no same-day voter registration, incredibly restrictive requirements on changing party affiliation, arcane procedures for candidates to receive ballot access, and separate primaries for state and federal offices (the only state in the entire U.S. with this policy). To make matters worse, the state does not provide monetary support to counties to offset the costs of purchasing updated equipment, which has led to the continued use of outdated voting machines and, consequently, horrifically long lines at many polling places.

As a result of New York’s voting policies (many of which were written in the 19th century, when New York’s population was less than a third of what it is now), it consistently ranks among the worst states in voter participation and enthusiasm.  In fact, New York’s voting laws and procedures are so restrictive and antiquated that more conservative states like Ohio and North Carolina have used New York’s policies to justify their own restrictions on voting rights.

As a New Yorker, that is unacceptable and, frankly, embarrassing.

At a time of increased criticism regarding voter suppression efforts nationwide, New York should whole-heartedly encourage its citizens to vote—not continue to make it difficult to do so. The state should be a beacon of transparent and inclusive governance—not a symbol of Progressive hypocrisy.

There is no reason that ineptitude—or worse, willed ignorance—should hinder thousands of New Yorkers as they try to exercise their constitutionally protected right to select their elected officials, especially now that Democrats control the governor’s mansion and both houses of the state legislature simultaneously for the first time in nearly a decade.

Democrats in the legislature should immediately push for no-brainer bills legalizing early voting (which Governor Andrew Cuomo promised in the past but subsequently reneged on), automatic voter registration, and increased funding for counties to upgrade their voting equipment. They should also seek to reform the party registration process (which punished many potential Bernie Sanders voters in the 2016 primary), consolidate the state and federal primaries (a measure that would save $25 million and cover the costs of early voting), and ensure that absentee ballots can be obtained for any reason.

Additionally, the state legislature should look into the feasibility of both vote-by-mail policies (where ballots are proactively mailed to eligible voters) and same-day voter registration—two policies that have improved voter turnout in the states in which they have been implemented. Furthermore, the legislature should push for the county-driven adoption of non-partisan municipal elections—which would remove national politics from local elections—and the restructuring of the partisan and dysfunctional Board of Elections.

On a slightly more radical scale, New York should also consider establishing ‘Ranked-Choice Voting’ (also known as Instant Runoff Voting). Implementation of this policy would stop penalizing New Yorkers for supporting 3rd-party candidates, lead to less rancorous campaigns, and would allow for a greater dialogue of ideas and perspectives to shape New York’s politics. As was recently witnessed in a congressional race in Maine, the system worked by making sure the candidate that was most palatable to the majority of voters won the election. Furthermore, the state should look into special election reform (which would mandate that special elections be called within a certain date of a vacancy) and explore the possibility of moving the date of New York’s presidential primary to Super Tuesday—a development that would surely stoke voter turnout.

Here’s the bottom line: A functioning 21st century democracy—especially one that considers itself as Progressive as New York—should not be operating under 19th century laws. No matter how uncomfortable it may be to change the status quo, it should make New Yorkers and, more acutely, its elected officials infinitely more uncomfortable that tens thousands of voters are excluded from its electoral process—a reality that makes the state a national embarrassment.

It is time for New York to set a high standard for the rest of the country.

It is time for voting reform.

Max Magid