Anyone who stood in line at a polling place or missed the registration deadline for this year’s general election will tell you: voting in New York is not easy. Even if you make it inside the voting booth, it’s easy to be discouraged when so many races are either lopsided or uncontested. In recent months, Mayor Bill de Blasio has become increasingly vocal about the need to reform the system, but he faces long odds as he takes the fight to Albany next year.
While other states are enacting voter suppression laws targeting the young, the poor, and minorities, New York relies on what the mayor calls “passive” disenfranchisement, keeping barriers to the ballot box in place that other states have eliminated. The result: New York ranks among the worst states for voter turnout.
“When I look at our electoral laws, they are so arcane, and it makes me wonder how they weren’t torn down a long time ago,” de Blasio said Friday at a conference on voting sponsored by the Citizens Union. “[It] has been going on for decades: make voting so difficult, make registering so difficult, that the electorate is kept small and incumbents are favored.”
De Blasio continued, “This state — this theoretically progressive, modern state — when it comes to electoral laws, shows no evidence of being progressive and innovative and modern. It just doesn’t. It’s backwards. We are just backwards.”
The mayor backs a handful of reforms, including early voting and electronic check-in at polling places. He also wants same-day registration, which is a heavier lift: state law sets the registration cutoff at 25 days before an election; allowing registration fewer than 10 days before the vote would require a change to the state constitution.
“All sorts of places are implementing these reforms, and it’s going perfectly well,” de Blasio said. “New York state has none of these three things. The next biggest state that has none of these reforms is Kentucky. No disrespect to Kentucky.”
De Blasio also reiterated his offer to give $20 million to the state-controlled, party-dominated Board of Elections if it enacts managerial and training reforms. “I put that offer out months ago and I still have not heard a response,” the mayor said. “It’s the only agency I’ve heard of that did not say ‘yes’ to an offer of 20 million dollars.”
Ideally, de Blasio said, he would like city control of the BOE. Absent that, he urged Albany to pass legislation empowering the board’s executive director, instead of placing power in commissioners named by county party organizations.
The mayor may have a newfound enthusiasm for election reform, but changing the law requires approval from the legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The governor proposed early voting in this year’s budget, but the proposal was scrapped from the final version. Cuomo’s Department of Motor Vehicles has also made it easier to register to vote, but this does not help New Yorkers, including many city residents, who have little use for the DMV.
The only election reform to clear the legislature and get Cuomo’s signature: legislation entering New York into the National Popular Vote Compact, which would take effect once enough states sign on. Other bills have passed the Assembly but stalled in the Senate.
The Senate, of course, is controlled by Republicans and contains a breakaway conference of “independent Democrats,” both of which enjoy an often-cozy relationship with the governor.
Cuomo’s office did not reply to questions about how the governor will pursue election reform going forward.
“Albany is a place where there’s tremendous institutional resistance to changing anything,” said Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, sponsor of early voting and same-day registration bills, at this morning’s conference.
Advocates in attendance pushed for more, including automatic voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting, and relaxing the state’s onerous requirement that voters affiliate in a party more than six months before voting in its primary.
“Even Donald Trump’s children were not able to vote in their primary for their father because they didn’t know about the six-month rule,” said Jonathan Brater of the Brennan Center for Justice. “If that information isn’t penetrating Trump Tower, it isn’t penetrating public housing.”
“When you have this decrease in turnout, you end up with a lot less people of color voting,” said Demos policy analyst Sean McElwee. “That translates into policies that harm the people who are not voting.”