(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)
When I reported to my first duty as a Junior Officer of the United States Navy, my senior officer told me: “Your job is to take care of your people. Your people will take care of the ship.” This advice holds true outside the service: take care of your people, and they will take care of their family, their community, and their country.
It holds especially true when it comes to New York’s more than one million eligible voters who are not registered to vote. As a member of the armed services and as a veteran I’ve faced the burden of having to register to vote in multiple states, particularly here in New York, where the registration process is cumbersome, time-consuming, and inefficient. Now imagine if our state government systems actually worked together to reduce the bureaucracy for New Yorkers trying to navigate them. One significant way the U.S., and New York in particular, can make sure all can take part in the democratic process is by passing Automatic Voter Registration (AVR).
The idea is simple: instead of placing the onus of registration on individuals, eligible voters are automatically registered to vote by the state when they interact with a government agency.
Under New York’s current system, when someone moves within the state, they’re required to take the proactive step of updating their registration information. With AVR, the process would be made seamless. For example, if applying for a driver’s license or registering for classes, your info would be transmitted to the Board of Elections without any further action required on your part.
Critics argue that voters should take some responsibility for their registration but making it easier to register and preventing people from having to chase bureaucracy is a small price to pay, particularly for those who have borne the burden of war. The fact is, registration rates among active service members are consistently lower than among Americans generally. This is especially true in New York, which has the fifth largest veteran population of any state and is saddled with chronically low rates of registration.
For mobile or hard-to-reach populations like service members, as well as low income communities and communities of color, AVR would prove particularly effective, allowing your registration to follow you instead of vice versa. That also goes for military veterans suffering from physical or mental illness.
Beyond making the experience easier, AVR would also bring our agencies into the digital age. Imagine if our state government systems actually worked together to reduce bureaucratic wrangling that has come to define New York’s electoral process.
My career after the military has involved working with clients on digital transformations. I have observed organizations that I work with benefit from taking down the walls that separate their information systems. AVR is no different in the level of efficiency it would generate.
By now many of us are familiar with the 2016 incident in which the New York City Board of Elections erased 200,000 voters from the rolls. The reason for incidents like this is that our agencies tend to be siloed. New York requires residents to go online and fill out a separate form to register to vote, despite the fact that numerous agencies already collect the necessary information required to fill out voting forms.
AVR would break down these walls. A visit to the DMV or a Medicaid office would enable those agencies to electronically transmit your registration information to the BOE in a form that can be read by a computerized registrant list – saving time and money.
One study found that online and automated voter registrations saved Maricopa County, Arizona over $450,000 in 2008. It cost 33 cents to manually process an electronic application and an average of 3 cents to use a partially automated review process, compared with 83 cents for processing a paper registration form.
We have the opportunity to facilitate voter registration and make the process simpler while ridding our voter rolls of duplicates and eliminating incorrect and out-of-date addresses.
That’s why I went to Albany during a recent legislative hearing to share my experience.
Maintaining and protecting democracy requires more than service-men and -women going in harm’s way. It also requires providing citizens with not only the liberty, but the realistic ability, to exercise the right to vote and participate in the democratic dialogue.
We need to take care of our people by making it easier for all eligible voters so they can take care of our ship - this country. To ensure the full enjoyment of the rights for which my fellow veterans and I fought, and our current service-members continue to fight, the New York State Legislature should pass automatic voter registration this session.
Dolpha Freeman is a former U.S. Naval Officer and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. Dolpha currently works in a digital transformation consulting practice and resides in the Hudson Valley.