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- New York's new law makes strides in expanding voting rights and preventing racial discrimination in elections.
- New Yorkers rejected measures that would allow same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee ballots.
- A 2020 ranking of how easy it is to vote in all 50 states put New York in 10th place.
In New York, left-leaning politicians talk about how progressive their state is. But when it comes to voting, the Empire State has been slow to adopt voter access measures that have been passed elsewhere for decades.
Voting rights advocates point to recent wins they say improves access to the ballot box: the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, a sweeping law to prevent racial discrimination, and a bill passed by the Legislature to move the voter registration deadline closer to the election.
But they were caught off guard in November, when New Yorkers resoundingly rejected two measures to make it easier to vote: being able to register to vote on the same day as an election and casting an absentee ballot without an excuse.
"Those are the biggest, most important things we can do now to expand access to eligible voters who currently are not participating in the political process," said Perry Grossman, a supervising attorney who works on election law cases with the New York Civil Liberties Union.
New Yorkers who voted in November didn’t agree.
No-excuse absentee ballots, which can reduce long lines at in-person polling locations, are available in some form in 35 states and the District of Columbia. The proposal was rejected by 55 percent of New York voters. Same-day registration, which allows people to register to vote on the day of an election, is available in some form in 21 states and the District of Columbia. It was rejected by 56 percent of New York voters.
"It was a stinging defeat for those of us who have been working on these issues," said Sarah Goff, deputy director of Common Cause New York.
If lawmakers want to put the measures up for a vote again, they would have to pass them again in two consecutive legislatures.
The state’s Republican and Conservative parties campaigned against the proposals. Gerard Kassar, chairman of the state Conservative Party, pointed to local cases of fraudulent absentee ballots as reasons for his opposition. In an ongoing, sprawling investigation in Renssalaer County, a Republican council member in Troy pleaded guilty in June to identity theft in connection with casting three fraudulent ballots, and in a case on Staten Island, a Republican candidate for city council was suspected of using forged documents, leading to an investigation by the district attorney that began last year.
Studies of no-excuse absentee ballots and same-day registration have shown that the policies do not lead to widespread voter fraud. Claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election have also been found to be false.
The Conservative Party spent around $3 million on advertisements to defeat the no-excuse absentee ballot and same-day registration proposals, as well as a reapportionment proposal, which also failed, Kassar said.
Voters’ mistrust in county boards of election, which are run by political appointees of the Democratic and Republican parties, helped the Conservatives’ campaign, he said. He cited a recount in Rep. Claudia Tenney’s last election, where 55 votes were discovered long after Election Day and voter registrations that were never processed as an example of dysfunction at some boards.
Tenney represents an upstate district that touches eight counties, but big problems exist downstate, too. The New York City Board of Elections has mishandled voter rolls, absentee ballot distribution and polling place operation.
Kassar supports early voting and wants people to vote.
"I do want to see people come out," he said. "We’re trying to stop fraud."
The NYCLU’s Grossman said authorities have the tools to find fraud, as they did in Troy and Staten Island.
"Those are two instances of millions of absentee ballots cast," he said.
He said that turnout in November was low, which didn’t help, and that voting rights advocates need to make a case to counter false or exaggerated claims of widespread fraud.
"There’s the constant tension between people screaming fraud and how it undermines the integrity of elections if any ineligible voter casts a ballot, versus the severe undermining of the integrity of elections that occurs when lots and lots of eligible voters aren’t participating," he said.
New York has made uneven progress in improving access to more voters. The state boasts the longest Election Day polling hours in the country, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Gov. Kathy Hochul has extended through 2022 a provision that allows absentee ballots to be used by people concerned about contracting or spreading viruses like COVID-19, in addition to the longstanding other reasons, such as being out of the county on the day of an election or being a caregiver for an ill or disabled person.
From 2016 to 2020, New York has made it easier to vote, according to the Cost of Voting Index. Academic researchers looked at laws in all 50 states, at such things as whether a state has automatic voter registration, how close to Election Day people can register to vote, and whether states allow early or mail-in voting. Despite New York’s improvement, in 2020 the state ranked below nine other states: Oregon, Washington, Illinois, Utah, Massachusetts, California, Maryland, New Jersey and Arkansas.
Historically, political parties don’t want greater access to the ballot, said Robert M. Stein, a political science professor at Rice University. "They only want to bring people to the polls who are certain to vote for their candidate. Many of the laws intended to increase voter access have failed to deliver more voters to the polls, of either partisan persuasion," Stein said.
Voting rights advocates in New York say that progress on changing restrictive laws began in 2019, when the Democrats took control of the State Senate. With Democrats already the majority party in the State Assembly, the party gained full control of the Legislature. That year, lawmakers approved nine days of early voting before an election, as well as online voter registration, and reduced restrictions on enrolling in a party before a primary election.
Other changes in the last few years are automatic voter registration, which registers people to vote automatically when they interact with certain state agencies, unless they opt out. The Legislature passed it but it hasn’t taken effect yet. Lawmakers have also codified an executive order that restored voting rights to people released from prison.
The bill that allows people to register 10 days before Election Day, instead of the previous 25 days, has to be signed by Hochul to become law. This will allow people to register and cast a ballot on the first day of early voting.
"There’s been a lot of progress, but there’s still work to do," said Patrick Berry, counsel in the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice, which advocates for voting rights.
Berry and Grossman called the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act landmark legislation that makes New York a leader in fighting racial discrimination at the polls. The act is intended to restore protections provided for in the U.S. Voting Rights Act that were removed after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Shelby County v. Holder in 2013.
The act has many parts. It makes voting materials more accessible to non-English speakers, protects against voter suppression, and puts the burden on municipalities that have historically discriminated against minority groups to ensure these voters have access to the polls. Instead of forcing voters who have been disenfranchised to file a lawsuit after the election is over, counties that have a record of discrimination must get their election plans approved in advance. Counties that would have to do this are places where there is housing segregation, or law enforcement discrimination of minority groups, or a history of voting rights or civil rights violations. They must submit their polling place setups and other voting activities to the attorney general in advance of an election, known as preclearance.
"New York is about to have the only functioning preclearance program in the United States," said Grossman, who advocated for the act’s passage.
As for this year’s voting, advocates suggested that voters check to make sure they know what district they’re voting in. Redistricting for the House of Representatives, state Senate and Assembly districts have changed district lines.
The state has made other changes this year:
Absentee ballots will have prepaid return envelopes.
Voters who request to vote by absentee are no longer allowed to vote on a machine if they want to vote in person, though they can vote in person by affidavit ballot.
Weekend hours for early voting have been expanded and there are more early voting sites.
Absentee voters will have an opportunity to cure their ballot if it was mailed in time but arrived after Election Day and was not postmarked.
RELATED: Fact-checks about New York politics
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Cost of Voting Index, Final COVID data 2020, accessed Aug. 22, 2022.
The Conversation, "There’s nothing unusual about early voting – it’s been done since the founding of the republic," Oct. 8, 2020. Accessed Aug. 22, 2022.
Austin Community College, report, "Early voting in Texas: What are the effects?" Stefan D. Haag, adjunct professor. Accessed Aug. 22, 2022.
NY.gov, news release, "Gov. Hochul signs landmark John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York into law," June 20, 2022. Accessed Aug. 16, 2022.
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Phone interview, Robert M. Stein, Lena Gohlman Fox Professor of Political Science, Rice University, Aug. 4, 2022.
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