New York legislators pass sweeping overhaul of voting laws

New York legislators pass sweeping overhaul of voting laws
© Getty Images
New York’s state legislature on Monday passed a package of election and voting reform measures aimed at overhauling one of the most restrictive regimes in the country.
 
The measures, planned by Democrats who reclaimed control of all levers of state government for the first time in modern memory, would allow voters to cast their ballots early or by mail for the first time in state history.
 
ADVERTISEMENT
They would also allow voters to register and vote on the same day, and it would require the state to hold state and federal primaries on the same day.
 
“Easing access to voting and having New Yorkers exercise their Constitutional right to have their voices heard shouldn’t be partisan or controversial,” said state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D).
 
“Other states have taken the lead on issues like early voting, same-day registration, pre-registration and no-excuse absentee voting. It is time for New York State to catch up, so we can once again lead the way forward,” she added.
 
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has signaled he will sign the package of bills. Nine Republicans in the state Senate voted with Democrats to expand voting access.
 
“It’s really significant advance towards bringing NY’s elections into the 21st century,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, which advocated for the overhauls. 
 
New York’s antiquated voting laws are a relic of the earliest settlers in the region, Dutch colonists who founded New Amsterdam in the 17th Century.
 
Those settlers founded the colony as an extension of the Dutch West India Company, which was more interested in commerce than a representative government like those in Puritan colonies in Massachusetts.
 
In later years, party machines run by Tammany Hall benefitted from voting restrictions that limited turnout to only a handful of faithful voters.
 
In modern times, the Democratic-led state Assembly has passed several voting rights overhauls. But those measures routinely died in the state Senate, where Republicans held control with the help of a rump faction of independent Democrats.
 
“We have some of the worst election laws in the country,” state Sen. Brian Kavanagh (D), one of the lead sponsors on the overhaul package, told The Hill in an interview last month. “Our laws have atrophied over a long period of time.”
 
As a consequence, New York, the fourth-largest state, has had some of the worst voter turnout figures in the country.
 
In the 2014 midterm elections, only 34 percent of New York voters cast a ballot, a lower turnout rate than all but two other states. In 2016, 57 percent of voters cast a ballot in the presidential election, lower than all but seven other states.
 
Voters “are now being invited to participate in elections, as opposed to being discouraged. And I think we’ll see that impact,” Lerner said.
 
Most of the new measures will put New York in line with the majority of other states that allow early voting or no-excuse absentee voting.
 
ADVERTISEMENT
Thirty states and the District of Columbia allow no-fault absentee voting, and 37 states and D.C. allow early voting in person.
 
The state Senate also advanced measures that would allow 16- and 17-year olds to register to vote in advance of their 18th birthdays. 
 
The bill merging state and federal primaries is a significant step toward increasing participation, Lerner said.
 
The divided primaries — made necessary after a court decision forced the federal primary into June — cost county governments as much as $25 million every year. Lerner said that money would be more than enough to cover the costs of early voting.
 
“It will come out definitely revenue neutral or possibly more money saved by the counties,” Lerner said.
 
Cuomo said Monday he would include even more voting overhauls in his budget proposal later this month. Cuomo said he would propose opening polling places in upstate counties before noon on primary election days and added he would make Election Day a state holiday.
 
Cuomo also plans to ask the legislature to create an automatic voter registration system, under which New Yorkers who interact with state agencies will be registered to vote unless they opt out.
 
“At a time when the federal government is doing everything it can to disenfranchise voters, we are taking action to make it easier for New Yorkers to participate in the democratic process and crack down on corporate influences in our election,” Cuomo said.