(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)
On January 14, the New York State Assembly and Senate made their mark on New York voting history. After over 100 years without meaningful reform, legislators passed six bills that will significantly increase voter access to the polls and the reach of their voices. On January 25, Governor Cuomo codified this historic expansion and signed those bills into law. Important legislative priorities such as early voting, pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, registration portability, and the consolidation of our state and federal primaries are now state law. Our legislators also took a significant step toward changing our constitution to allow for same-day registration and no-excuse absentee voting by mail.
It is important to note amidst the celebration of grassroots and advocacy groups who have been fighting for these reforms that our work, and the work of our representatives, is not complete. Transformative reforms such as automatic voter registration, the restoration of the voting rights for people on parole, establishing a universal right to vote, and shortening the deadline to change party affiliation were starkly absent from the legislation passed. Many of these common sense reforms are long overdue.
Our elected representatives have received well-deserved praise for taking decisive action in the process of bringing New York’s voting laws into the 21st century by prioritizing and passing legislation that was stymied for far too long. However, not only is there more to do, but New York is once again faced with the unfortunate and unnecessary lack of transparency that has become synonymous with state government in Albany.
Voting reform has the exciting potential to bring more people into the democratic process. But New York will not be a leader in democracy until the process of governing embodies openness, accountability, and greater participation. Reform must not stop with the passage of the aforementioned voting legislation, but requires inclusion of the once-honored legislative processes of hearings, debate, and public comment. Our elected representatives, as they consider and take further action, should seek out the voices of their constituents.
New Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says their work is not done, and so we too must continue to work and hold our representatives accountable until no one is left behind and New York is the embodiment of a democracy we can all be proud of.
As the chief executive of New York State, and the keeper of the state budget, Governor Cuomo is now tasked with implementation and ensuring new reforms are appropriately funded. It is concerning that his proposed executive budget lacks specific funding allocated for early voting. Just last year, Cuomo, in the face of intransigence and hostility in the state Senate, allocated $7 million for early voting in the executive budget. When this year provided with passed legislation to sign and implement, why would the governor not designate funding specifically for early voting in his budget?
Cuomo states that the cost of early voting will be covered by the consolidation of the federal and state primaries combined with the new sales tax revenue to be collected from the elimination of the internet tax advantage. Neither of these revenue streams will be available to county Boards of Elections in time to fund early voting in 2019. It is puzzling why now, at this historic moment, the governor would withhold designated funding for a reform he supports and for which he allocated money only a year ago.
During his “First 100 Days” speech given in December, Cuomo criticized the federal government's attempts to disenfranchise voters, and stated that "we have to do the exact opposite and improve our democracy.” The reality is that to improve our democracy after over a century of inaction, it is going to take money. And to prove a commitment to the reforms being passed by the Legislature, the same reforms he himself has called for throughout his tenure, the governor must commit real dollars for implementation this year.
The governor and the leadership of the Assembly and Senate must stand true to their promises and ensure these reforms are appropriately implemented and adequately funded. Now is the time for clear, decisive action. It is not the time for unfunded promises, backroom deals, or excuses. Do not give us reform in name only. There must be a line item in the budget to specifically and sufficiently fund early voting.
All interested parties should work together to make sure the counties are provided with funding and support so that they are prepared for these changes and voters can take advantage of them seamlessly. Voting reform advocates statewide will continue to fight so that we the people can access our most fundamental right to vote. We believe in our elected representatives and we know they can get this done.