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Now’s the Time for Automatic Voter Registration in New York


primary voting parkslope

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Over the last several decades, 15 states across the country – both red and blue – have modernized their voting laws, including our neighbors in New Jersey and Massachusetts. Unfortunately, here in New York we remain mired in the past, refusing to implement reforms to fix the state’s poor electoral system and erecting arbitrary barriers to voter participation.

The results are clear: New York routinely has some of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country. In 2018, New York ranked 48th in turnout. Also important to this discussion is that in the midst of the 2016 election, upwards of 200,000 voters were illegally purged from the voter rolls in Brooklyn due to errors at the New York City Board of Elections.

Now, more than ever, New York has an obligation to make it simpler – not harder – for people to vote.

This legislative session in Albany, we can make real change. New York can move our elections into the future by passing Automatic Voter Registration, or AVR.

The idea behind AVR is simple: instead of putting the burden of registering to vote on individuals, the state automatically registers them when they interact with government agencies and they can elect not to participate if they so choose. Here’s an example of how it would work.

When an eligible voter goes to the DMV or enrolls in Medicaid, he or she is already supplying a variety of data – name, birthdate, address, etc. From that single interaction, New Yorkers can and should be able to sign up for the service they’re seeking and register or update their voting information.   

Automatic Voter Registration would securely collect and electronically transfer the data of eligible voters to the state Board of Elections, which would then send a pre-paid postcard to the voter to give them the chance to opt out of registration. If the individual doesn’t opt out, he or she is added to the rolls.

It's simple, it’s commonsensical, and it promotes civic engagement. AVR not only allows more individuals to participate in the democratic process by easing the registration process, it also ensures that voter rolls are accurate and up-to-date.

And we know it works.

In Oregon, for instance, 94 percent of individuals who interacted with the DMV and were eligible to vote were registered. Research suggests that 44 percent of the new registrants subsequently voted, leading Oregon to have the largest turnout increase between 2012 and 2016 of any state. In 2018, it had one of the highest turnout rates in the country.

AVR also saves the state money by eliminating the costs of provisional ballots, costly paper transactions, and manual data entry. Across the country, localities have saved an average of about $3.54 in costs per registration by moving from a paper to an electronic method.

And the time freed up allows election officials to focus less on data entry and more on running elections smoothly and efficiently. That’s something New York desperately needs.

The question is whether we have the will.

Here at home, polling released by a new New York advocacy effort, AVR NOW, from Civis Analytics shows there is positive support for AVR in almost every single New York state Senate district. Statewide, a supermajority of 64 percent of New York voters support AVR. That’s not surprising here in New York because even the most casual voter knows our elections are dysfunctional.

This session, New York has a chance to modernize our elections, tear down arbitrary barriers to voting, and reaffirm that our state works for all the people.

We should seize it.

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State Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens is the incoming Deputy Majority Leader and author of New York's Automatic Voter Registration bill. Sean McElwee is a policy analyst, writer and co-founder of Data for Progress. On Twitter @SenGianaris & @SeanMcElwee.

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