New York

N.Y. State enacts significant voting reforms in 2019

In January 2019, the N.Y. State legislature passed, and Gov. Cuomo signed, significant legislation making it easier to citizens to vote. 

As Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said, “Government should be about breaking down barriers. We need more voices in our democracy, not fewer. Easing access to voting and having New Yorkers exercise their Constitutional right to have their voices heard shouldn’t be partisan or controversial. 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.”

The new legislative package includes the following reforms. 

  • Early voting: Enacting early voting will make voting more convenient for voters with professional or family obligations that make it difficult to physically get to the polls, as well as reduce waiting times and ease logistical burdens for poll workers. The new law provides Early Voting of 10 days, which includes two weekends. Prior to this law, N.Y. was one of only 12 states that did not permit early voting. 
  • Synchronizing federal and state elections: New York State currently holds separate primary elections for state and federal elections. With the addition of a presidential primary every four years and a general election, this means that in some cases New York is holding four different elections in a year. This can be confusing to voters, wastes administrative resources, and significantly restricts voter turnout. The separate primaries for federal and state offices were a major cause of the extremely low voter turnout in N.Y. State. This bill will unify the federal and state primaries and ensure that voters only go to the polls once to choose their nominees. This change should significantly increase voter turnout. 
  • Pre-registration for minors: New Yorkers are not permitted to register to vote unless they will be 18 years of age by the end of the year, and by the date of the election in which they intend to vote. This bill will allow 16 and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote, meaning that a voter will automatically be registered on his or her 18th birthday. This should make it much easier for people to register.
  • Universal transfer of registration: When New Yorkers move to a different county, their voter registration does not move with them. This requires the voter to re-register with his or her new local board of elections as if he or she were registering for this first time. This bill will ensure that when a voter moves elsewhere in the state, his or her voter registration will seamlessly go with them.
  • Closing the LLC Loophole:Individuals and corporations have strict limits to their political spending, but large donors have avoided these limits by donating through LLCs. This new law places the same limit on LLCs as on corporations ($5,000). It also requires the disclosure of direct and indirect membership interests in the LLC making a contribution, and for the contribution to be attributed to that individual. 

In addition to these significant improvements, the State Legislature also passed two resolutions for constitutional amendments. 

  • No-excuse absentee voting by mail: The New York State Constitution currently restricts absentee ballots to individuals who provide a qualifying reason, such as absence from the county on Election Day or an illness or disability. This unnecessarily prevents New Yorkers from being able to vote by mail for reasons other than those currently listed in the constitution, or simply for convenience. This constitutional amendment will make absentee ballots available to any eligible voter, no matter their reason for wanting one, which will help make voting as accessible as possible.
  • Same-day registration: The New York State Constitution prohibits voters from registering to vote less than 10 days before an election and still being able to vote in that election. In today’s world with today’s technology, there is no policy or administrative reason to prevent voters from registering to vote on the day of an election. This constitutional amendment will eliminate this outdated but formidable barrier to the ballot box.

Other issues under consideration for 2020 include: 

  • Making Election Day a holidayso people do not have to take off from work to vote. 
  • Automatic registrationso people can register to vote when they get a driver’s license or interact with the state in some other official manner. 
  • Online registrationso New Yorkers can apply to the Board of Elections in the same way they apply to the DMV. 
  • Ban corporate contributionsto restore power to the people and reduce the power of special interests and dark money. 

Reform Elections Now believes the State Legislature and Governor Cuomo have taken important steps to improve democracy in N.Y. State.

What is Election Turnout so Low in N.Y. compared to California?

California and New York are both solid blue states. They both have major urban areas. They are both affluent. Yet in districts with competitive Congressional primaries in 2018, New York had an average voter turnout of 27,401, while similar districts in California had an average turnout of 200,962. Since Congressional districts have the same number of people, this means the turnout in California was 7.3x the turnout in New York.


         NEW YORK                  CALIFORNIA

District               Votes     District                     Votes
2                      12,771      1                        190,371
5                      13,548      2                        198,684
9                      30,551      4                        211,571
14                     29,778     12                        206,382
16                     30,078     30                        128,471
21                     19,618     33                        163,001
23                     23,501     45                        167,957 
24                     23,855     48                        174,024
25                     35,509     52                        167,236

Average                27,401       Average                  200,962    

There are a few major differences between New York and California:

New York has closed primaries, so only party members can vote. This means independents cannot participate.10 of the 27 districts had no primaries, depriving even members of each party of a choice.

More significantly, in N.Y. there have been two days for primaries: one for state races and one for national races. By dividing the primaries into two days, voters have been confused and discouraged from voting. Fortunately, the N.Y. State Legislature and Governor Cuomo have remedied this issue by passing a law in which the primaries will be on the same day. This should help increase turnout in the future.
California has non-partisan primaries, so anyone from any party can run and anyone from any party can vote. This has led to much higher turnouts in primaries and competitive general elections.

Which state do you think has the better democracy? The state where 27,401 people turn out to vote in the primary or the state in which 200,962 people turn out to vote?

At Reform Elections Now, we support non-partisan primaries, such as those in California. We oppose closed primaries, such as those in New York.

However, we believe that numbers often speak louder than words. What these numbers show is simple: New Yorkers are turned off by their electoral system, while Californians are turned on.

We believe the N.Y. State Legislature and Governor Cuomo have taken some positive steps in increase voter participation. However, we still believe that the closed primaries are a detriment to our Democracy, and that non-partisan primaries, such as those used in California are a good alternative.

Here is an Op-Ed Piece Written for the N.Y. Times by Chuck Schumer, a Democratic Senator from N.Y. and the Senate Minority Leader

End Partisan Primaries, Save America
By Charles E. Schumer
• July 21, 2014

WASHINGTON — POLARIZATION and partisanship are a plague on American politics.
Political scientists have found that the two parties have each grown more ideologically homogeneous since the 1970s. The Senate hasn’t been so polarized since Reconstruction; the House has not been so divided since around 1900. As measured by laws passed, the current Congress is on track to be among the least productive in our republic’s history.
How did this happen? One of the main causes has not gotten enough attention: the party primary system.
The reasons behind the shocking primary defeat last month of Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, who was then leader of the Republican majority in the House, are still being debated, but there is no doubt that his defeat highlighted the pernicious effects of the predominant “winner-take-all” party primary system. Even in one of the country’s most Republican districts, Mr. Cantor was not conservative enough for the fairly small proportion of highly energized, ideologically driven voters who turned out for the primary. The partisan primary system, which favors more ideologically pure candidates, has contributed to the election of more extreme officeholders and increased political polarization. It has become a menace to governing.
From 10,000 feet, the structure of our electorate looks to be healthy, with perhaps a third of the potential voters who are left-leaning Democrats, a third who are right-leaning Republicans and a third who are independents in the middle.
But primaries poison the health of that system and warp its natural balance, because the vast majority of Americans don’t typically vote in primaries. Instead, it is the “third of the third” most to the right or most to the left who come out to vote — the 10 percent at each of the two extremes of the political spectrum. Making things worse, in most states, laws prohibit independents — who are not registered with either party and who make up a growing proportion of the electorate — from voting in primaries at all.
The phenomenon of primaries’ pulling people to the extremes seems more prevalent in the Republican Party, where centrists and moderates are increasingly rare, as a result of a combination of factors since the 1970s — the shift of Southern states toward Republican control, the mobilization of evangelical voters around social issues, anti-tax movements in California and elsewhere, and the rise of conservative talk radio and other news media. But the dynamic could easily expand to include the Democrats, who have at times been pulled too far to the left, for example on issues like crime and welfare’s excesses in the 1980s.
Two additional factors exacerbate the problem of party primaries. The first are the deep-pocketed interests that often lie at the extremes. The loosening of campaign finance restrictions by the Supreme Court has unleashed a flood of “independent” political spending by these special interests.
The second is the redistricting process. Technology has allowed parties that dominate their state legislatures to draw districts that will almost never elect a candidate of the opposing party. Each party maneuvers, once a decade, to manipulate the boundaries to its advantage. One of the reasons the Senate is, for all its flaws, still more moderate than the House is that there is no redistricting, since senators are elected statewide.
Primary election rules are not immutably ingrained in our politics. Before the McGovern-Fraser Commission — formed after the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, which was marred by conflict over the Vietnam War — primaries were not even a major component of electoral politics in most states. Both parties adopted many of the commission’s recommendations, which were intended to weaken the power of party bosses. But today, with the decline of party-machine power, the polarization that divides the parties seems a far greater threat than establishment “bosses.”

We need a national movement to adopt the “top-two” primary (also known as an open primary), in which all voters, regardless of party registration, can vote and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, then enter a runoff. This would prevent a hard-right or hard-left candidate from gaining office with the support of just a sliver of the voters of the vastly diminished primary electorate; to finish in the top two, candidates from either party would have to reach out to the broad middle.
California, which probably mirrors the diversity of America more than any other state, was racked by polarization until voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2010 that adopted a “top-two” primary system. The move has had a moderating influence on both parties and a salutary effect on the political system and its ability to govern. Louisiana has used a similar system since the 1970s, and Washington State since 2008. Voters in Colorado and Oregon will consider proposals later this year.
If it works in these states, it can work in others. In late June, Senator Thad Cochran, a conservative Mississippi Republican, won a runoff primary over an even more conservative challenger, Chris McDaniel, with the support of Democrats, many of them African-American, who crossed over to vote for him.
While there are no guarantees, it seems likely that a top-two primary system would encourage more participation in primaries and undo tendencies toward default extremism. It would remove the incentive that pushes our politicians to kowtow to the factions of their party that are most driven by fear and anger. For those of us who are in despair over partisanship and polarization in Congress, reform of the primary system is a start.
Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, was elected to the House in 1980 and to the Senate in 1998.

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