Gotham Gazette

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New York's Democracy is Broken; Albany Leaders are to Blame

Lonely voting (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Our federal democracy is broken. 

The Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade; five of nine justices were nominated by presidents who lost the national popular vote. Those justices have thrown their hands up when asked to address extreme partisan gerrymandering, then used their pens to gut what’s left of the Voting Rights Act. 

Gerrymandering locks in minority power nationwide while the filibuster does the job in the Senate, so widely popular policies like universal background checks for gun purchases are left undone.

As we look to Albany to shore up abortion access and gun control, our blue bastion should also be a national model for a healthy democracy. But — traceable directly to a lack of pro-democracy energy in our State Legislature — New York is anything but. 

Our failure to deliver fair, inclusive, well-run elections makes us a national laggard at the very moment we must be leading, and the consequences are far more than embarrassment. Our impoverished democracy disenfranchises voters and reduces the responsiveness of our legislators to the oversight of New Yorkers.

First, there is the fiasco surrounding the tossed-and-redrawn Congressional and State Senate district maps and choice to hold two primary days, a court-ordered August primary for those races and a June primary for Assembly, statewide, and other races. Good government groups affirm that the split primary will disenfranchise voters beyond our already dismally low turnout, a boon to incumbents but a loss to New Yorkers. State leaders chose not to consolidate the primaries in August though they had time to do so after the court order.

The hydra-headed debacle was all of Albany leaders’ own making. Beyond drawing the maps that have been ruled unconstitutional, they’re responsible for the state’s top court being led by a bloc far more conservative than the state is.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore is a former Republican appointed by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo. She wrote the decision after the 4-3 ruling against the Democratic district maps, which got its decisive vote from Madeline Singas — a conservative Democrat who Cuomo pushed through. All but ten Democratic state senators voted to confirm her over progressives’ objections to her record; with the redistricting decision, those Democrats’ neglect of the courts came home to roost.

But legislators’ anti-democratic actions aren’t limited to making the courts their Lucy with the football of cushy districts. The coming split primaries will happen within a status quo of anti-voter laws and unprofessional administration, thanks to both past negligence and current disregard from legislators. 

Last year, Democrats did nothing to support the passage of constitutional amendments to enable same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting in New York — critical, common-sense, pro-voter laws that exist all over the country to drive more turnout. Republicans spent money and campaigned against the changes; in spite of Democrats’ 2-to-1 voter registration advantage, the amendments failed by double digits.

The 2021 election was the latest in a long line of failures of election administration in New York, and in particular New York City. Our Board of Elections fumbled the first tabulation of ranked-choice voting results — undermining confidence in the vote at a moment when flames of the Big Lie are fanned by any lapse in election integrity — after having to replace 100,000 absentee ballots during a mishap in 2020. And the list goes on. 

Since then, State Senator Liz Krueger has been seeking to professionalize the New York City Board of Elections, but the bill to do so didn’t pass during the just-ended legislative session; it lacked support in the Assembly after passing the Senate

The session wasn’t all bad. The hard-won John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York will serve as a bulwark against discrimination and voter intimidation. On the other hand, a bill to move more municipal elections to even-numbered years to boost turnout failed

Albany insiders — and especially the Assembly’s establishment, status-quo-biased incumbents — have little incentive to significantly improve elections and boost turnout in New York. Better turnout, and a more informed electorate, might upset their Big Applecart.

The Assembly’s undermining of democracy isn’t limited to which bills it won’t advance — it’s also reflected in a lack of transparency. Speaker Carl Heastie has restricted media access and limited public observation of the chamber’s proceedings, and his conference hasn’t forced more openness or accessibility.

The picture is dire, and a desiccated democracy isn’t the only consequence of the anti-democratic interests of our Assembly members. Ever since the 2018 election swept new insurgents into the State Senate — ousting the IDC Democrats who gave Republicans control of the chamber — good laws stall in the Assembly, where there is no significant coalition pressuring leadership to step off the beaten path. 

Facing a further entrenchment of minoritarian power in Washington, we must demand more from our own legislators. If we want our federal representatives to kill the filibuster, expand the court, codify abortion and voting rights, and more, we must also make bold demands of our state elected officials: draw better districts, appoint better judges, build better courts and elections, advocate better pro-voter laws, and demand better from legislative leadership. 

New York deserves more from Democrats in Albany, and American democracy needs more from New York.

Ryder Kessler led voter protection teams for Democrats during the 2020 presidential election and 2021 Georgia senate runoffs. He is now a candidate for State Assembly in District 66. On Twitter @ryderkessler.

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