Senate Dems look to simplify voting process ahead of federal and state primaries

Photo by Kevin P. Coughlin / Office of the Governor
Governor Andrew Cuomo votes in the 2017 general election in Westchester, New York. The Senate Democratic Conference has introduced 12 bills that would change how New Yorkers vote in both the primary and general elections.

The New York State Senate Democratic Conference is sponsoring a package of bills to simplify the voter registration process for primary, general and special elections after releasing their own report researching low voter turnout.

The Senate Democratic report, “Why Don’t More New Yorkers Vote? A Snapshot Identifying Low Voter Turnout,” explains in the executive summary that New York was “41st in turnout in the nation, and [was] worst in the Northeast” during the 2016 general election. This conclusion was based on “unofficial results” available on the state election board’s website cited in the study and an additional study done by the U.S. Election Project.

The Senate Democratic Policy Group, a group of seven senators chaired by Brad Hoylman, surveyed 930 eligible voters researching their behavior to understand exactly why they haven’t been to the polls.

According to the study, a variety of reasons were found as to why voters did not vote in 2016.

They either had work or school obligations and couldn’t make it during the polling hours, were too busy caring for family members, didn’t want to go out in bad weather, missed voting due to illness or disability, didn’t even know that it was election day or could not get an absentee ballot.

Based on this information, the Senate Democrats are looking to change New York’s “archaic” voting rules regarding early voting, absentee ballots, and how primaries run in the state. The conference also seeks to reform the state’s laws regarding how primaries are scheduled and administered.

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, and Assemblyman Charles Lavine, D-Glen Cove, are sponsoring a bill (S.3562-A/A.9925) to consolidate federal and state primaries. In the past, voters would have to go to the polls on two separate days to vote in a political party’s state and federal primaries. The Stewart-Cousins/Lavine bill would have them happen on the same day.

This bill would also require New York state’s election laws to comply with the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act. This law, signed by former President Barack Obama in 2009, requires states to transmit absentee ballots to military personnel overseas no later than 45 days before a federal election. This bill would make sure that absentee ballots are being sent overseas in a timely manner. The bill currently resides in the Senate Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs Committee and is currently being reviewed in the Assembly after being referred to the Elections Committee.

“We need to fix New York’s broken democracy,” Stewart-Cousins said. “Government should make it easier for citizens to vote, not put up unnecessary hurdles.”

A major critique of the primary system is how party switching works when it comes to primaries. In order to to be eligible to vote in a party’s primary this year, one would already have to be registered to that party.

The deadline to register for a party’s primary was October 13th 2017, almost a year in advance of the primaries. This has been a source of criticism by progressives like 2016 Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon. The bill package contains legislation that looks to reform the registration timeline.

The change of party enrollment reform bill (S.5615) has been introduced by Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Upper East Side, and would allow individuals who have changed their party alignments to vote in a primary election unless the change is submitted less than 30 days before the election. It has been referred to the Senate Elections Committee.

“I am pleased to join my Democratic colleagues in advancing this important package of bills that will modernize voting procedures, remove barriers to voting, and help give New Yorkers the free, fair, and accessible elections they deserve,” Krueger said.

One bill (S.7264/A8665-a), sponsored by Sen. David Valesky, D-Oneida, and Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, D-Ossining, would also require all polling locations across the state on primary election dates to uniformly be open from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Astoria, is sponsoring the “Voter Empowerment Act” (S.3304) which is an effort to streamline voter registration in the state. The proposed law would make it easier to correct “human error” while registering and combat instances of voting fraud by distinguishing the difference between an error and clear fraud on paperwork.

Under this bill the Senate Democrats hope that transferring registrations across the state will become easier. Voters would also have access to voter registration records and even register to vote online. Voter registration deadlines would also be changed in the state. The bill is currently in the Senate Elections Committee and committee consideration has been requested.

“Access to the ballot box should be easy and fair,” Gianaris said.

Automatic voter registration (S.3409/A.5846) is being sponsored by Sen. Kevin Parker, D-Flatbush, and Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, D-Ocean Hill/Brownsville. Citizens of the state would automatically be registered to vote after interacting with state or local agencies unless they explicitly opt out of the process. One would be registered to vote after completing any state paperwork, i.e. applications for a new driver’s license or forms declaring a change of address. The bill resides in the Senate Elections Committee and the Assembly Election Laws Committee.

Another bill (S.840/A.7623), sponsored by Sen. Leroy Comrie, D-St. Albans, and Assemblyman Clyde Vanel, D-Queens, would bring about “no-excuse” absentee voting. This bill would amend the State Constitution by allowing voters to request to vote by mail without being required to declare a reason. The bill resides in the Senate Judiciary Committee and passed in the Assembly.

Multiple bills are being proposed to require the Board Of Elections to always mail notices of any upcoming Primary, General, Special Elections. The first bill (S.5527/A.6224) sponsored by Sen. Tony Avella, D-Whitestone, and Assemblyman Robert Carroll, D-Windsor Terrace, would require the Board of Elections to distribute voting guides with information on the candidates along with mailed notifications with information about voter registration and deadlines. The bill resides in the Senate Elections Committee and the Assembly Election Laws Committee.

Another bill (S.6733/A.8393), sponsored by  Sen. Brian Benjamin, D-Harlem, and Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Upper West Side, would also require mailed notifications, but in addition to the mailings, notifications would also be posted on the Board Of Elections website. The bill resides in the Senate Rules Committee and the Assembly Elections Committee.

The conference also wants to pre-register 16- and 17-year-olds to vote. The bill (S.4440/A.1687) allowing this is sponsored by Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, D-Brooklyn, and Assemblyman Walter Mosley, D- Brooklyn, and resides in the Senate Elections committee and the Assembly Election Law Committee.

The conference is also looking to expand the language options in the voting materials with three bills requiring the Board of Elections to incorporate other languages in voter information packets in specific areas throughout the state.

The first language bill (S.5602/A.7208) would incorporate the Haitian Creole language into voting materials. It is sponsored by Sen. David Carlucci, D-Clarkstown, and Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, D- Brooklyn.

The second language bill (S.3869/A.5506) would require the Queens County Board of Elections incorporate Bengali, Punjabi and Hindi into voting materials. The bill is sponsored by Comrie and Assemblyman David Weprin, D-Holliswood.

The third language bill (S.5825/A.3675) would require voting materials in Russian. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Diane Savino, D-Shore Acres, and Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz, D-Brighton Beach.

All three of the language bills are in the Senate Elections Committee and the Assembly Elections Committee.

The next statewide election is the 2018 Federal Primary Election on June 26th. The state primary election date has been moved to Thursday, September 13, 2018. The general election will be held on Tuesday, November 6, 2018.

“We must eliminate barriers to voting and pass this reform package now,” Stewart-Cousins said.