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Moving Toward a More Open and Accessible Election System: A Look at New York

March 23, 2016

Rosemarie Clouston

National Coordinator, Legal Mobilization Project

Election season is in full force here at the Lawyers’ Committee. Through the nationwide, nonpartisan Election Protection program, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law administers the 866-OUR-VOTE voter helpline, and voters have been steadily calling with questions since February. One of the recurring problems voters report is that they did not realize they had to register to vote by a certain deadline (usually about a month before Election Day, depending on the state) or tell the election official they moved in order to vote in the election. This is always a tough conversation for volunteers to have with a voter. It is hard telling someone they can’t vote—it feels like the elections system has let the person down. It should not be this complicated to participate in our democracy. The system can and need to work better.

One state that is considering steps to increase opportunities to the ballot box is New York. Instead of putting all the onus on the individual to proactively let an election official—separate from every other government entity—know that they want to register to vote or that they moved, the governor has proposed that New York automatically register citizens who go to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Individuals would have the opportunity to opt out, but otherwise, they would be registered to vote after getting their license or state ID. Oregon and California passed versions of automatic voter registration last year and many other states are also considering this innovative, modern voter registration system.

Moving the onus for voter registration from individuals to the government is an important step in improving the way elections are run in New York, and across the country. The world is so interconnected now—it seems like people can do everything online and they have come to expect that their information will follow them wherever they go. They may think that when they tell the post office that they moved or when they change their address with the DMV that other government agencies have their new information on file. However, many states’ database systems are not that sophisticated yet, so individuals have to update their information with each agency.

Earlier this month, the Lawyers’ Committee and 27 of the organization’s board members sent letters to Governor Cuomo and the leaders of the state Assembly and state Senate supporting the governor’s automatic voter registration proposal and suggested that it be expanded to cover other government agencies New Yorkers come into contact with like public assistance agencies. Registering voters at the DMV is good, but it is not enough since only about half of New York City residents have a driver’s license or state ID card. Furthermore, analysis in other states has shown us communities of color often lack those ID cards, and would be excluded from this process if it were limited to the DMV.

Governor Cuomo has also proposed, and the Lawyers’ Committee has expressed support for, instituting a period of in-person, early voting in New York. This proposal would go a long way increasing opportunities for hard-working New Yorkers. Nurses or construction workers who have long shifts or people who have long commutes (like many New Yorkers) are some of the individuals that would benefit if they were given the opportunity to vote early. In states where early voting has been adopted, it can improve the sense of community when families and churches go to vote together even if they don’t live in the same district, or have opposite weekday schedules. In North Carolina, Florida and other states with early voting, many African-American churches have taken the opportunity to organize “Souls to the Polls” events and bring church members to vote early after services on Sunday.

New York has abysmal voter turnout rates. It ranked 49th out of 51 states and DC for voter turnout in 2014 with only 29 percent of eligible individuals voting. There are many reasons for this, but the Lawyers’ Committee urges the legislature and the governor to take this opportunity to make the process work better for average New Yorkers and allow them to vote early and automatically register them when they interact with the state government.

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