Let’s Fix What’s Wrong with Voting in New York
This article first appeared in the Albany (NY) Times-Union on May 3, 2016, Voter Day as an Opinion piece co-authored with NYPIRG’s Blair Horner, entitled “Break Down the Barriers to Make Voter Registration Easier.”
In the wake of the voting problems in New York’s presidential primary, voters should direct their outrage at Albany lawmakers who resist common-sense changes to our archaic voting laws.
Every major election seems to reveal new cracks in our election system, so it is no surprise that New York ranked 49th in voter turnout in 2014. Understandably, many voters are losing faith in a broken system.
We deserve better and a few basic changes will vastly improve the voter experience and remove barriers to participation.
Make voter registration a seamless and intuitive experience. Voters should feel confident when they register that they will be able to cast a ballot on Election Day and the way to do that is to allow voters to register themselves online and with a smartphone.
It is unacceptable in 2016 that the overwhelming majority of New York’s voters still use pen and paper to register. Paper forms introduce a vicious cycle of human error that almost certainly disenfranchises voters. Election workers must interpret often illegible handwriting and manually enter that information into computers, resulting in misspelled names, incorrect addresses, and mistaken party affiliations. Correcting those errors is also a manual process that causes delays and generates additional errors.
Pending legislation in Albany would go a long way to improving voter registration. The Voter Empowerment Act (VEA) would establish universal online voter registration through the State Board of Elections. It would allow voters to automatically update their registration whenever they interact with certain state agencies, such as CUNY and SUNY. It would pre-register 16- and 17-year olds enabling our youngest citizens to vote as soon as they turn 18.
Following the lead of states with the highest turnouts, it’s time for to allow new voters to register and vote on Election Day. Unfortunately New York ’s constitution currently allows voters to register no earlier than 10 days before an election. State law currently allows voters to register no earlier than extends the deadline even further to 25 days before an election. The VEA takes the good first step of setting the deadline to match the New York State constitution’s 10 day limit, but it’s not enough.
Allow more voters to participate in New York’s primary system. Voters should feel confident that they can participate in the primary election of their choice and the way to do that is to give voters flexibility in changing their party affiliation.
New York is the only state that requires voters to change party affiliations in the year before an election. This extreme deadline prevents thousands of voters across the political spectrum from participating in some of our most consequential elections.
The Voter Empowerment Act would allow New Yorkers to change parties up to 10 days before an election, bringing it in-line with the registration deadline for new voters.
Give voters a convenient experience. Voters should have a convenient way to participate in the democratic process by having more than one day to vote.
Early voting reduces long lines and reduces the pressure to fix any voting problems in just one day. Voters love early voting, which is why 37 states now have it. It’s time for voters in New York to have some form of early voting, too.
Fix our ballots. Voters should have confidence that the ballots they cast will count. This starts with ballots that are intuitive to use and clear to every voter.
It’s an embarrassment that our ballots are still designed for the antique manual lever machines that were retired in 2010. “Because we’ve always done it this way” is inexcusable. Shockingly, in 2012 nearly 46,000 ballots cast statewide did not count because of mistakes resulting from poor ballot design. The state Assembly has unanimously passed legislation to fix these problems three times, only to be rejected by the Senate. It is time to act so that ballots have clear instructions and legible type.
The shameful state of our elections was on full display on April 19. For too long, lawmakers have made sure elections work for them. With the eyes of the nation on New York, voters can make change happen if we all stand together to demand it.
Blair Horner is the legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. Art Chang is a technology executive at Pivotal Software, who serves as the Chair of the non-partisan NYC Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, which sponsors the nonpartisan voter engagement program, NYC Votes. NYPIRG and NYC Votes are members of the VoteBetterNY.org coalition, which held its “Voter Day” in Albany on May 3.