Gotham Gazette

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It’s Not Just Jay Jacobs — New York Needs a Pro-Democracy Movement

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Voting on the line (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Last Tuesday night was full of stunners — a nailbiter in New Jersey, a rout in Virginia, a sweep on Long Island — but no electoral result shocked me more than New York’s failure to pass ballot proposals 3 and 4.

New York voters had an opportunity to broaden voting access by striking some of the most suppressive clauses in the state constitution. The measures would have eliminated the constitution’s bans on registering to vote within ten days of an election and on voting absentee for any reason (rather than restricting absentee ballots to those who are traveling or have a medical condition that prevents them from appearing at the polls).

More simply, proposal 3 would have permitted passage of same-day voter registration, so that New Yorkers who become interested in an election close to its date can still participate; and proposal 4 would have allowed any New York voter to cast a mail ballot just because they prefer the convenience of voting from home — on their own schedule — over going in person to a polling place.

Same-day registration and no-excuse absentee voting are among the country’s most common-sense and common voting protocols: 34 states allow anyone to vote by mail and 20 offer same-day registration. Yet when the results came in, New Yorkers had rejected these measures by double-digit margins.

The excelsior state’s failure to keep up on ballot access and competent election administration should no longer be surprising. Still, as a voter protection professional and democracy advocate, I remain shocked by our misguidedness. 

Wednesday morning quarterbacks have rightfully criticized Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs for deciding that the right dollar amount to invest in these measures, passed by two consecutive classes of the Legislature, was zero. Jacobs explained that the lack of a party-funded ad campaign in support was due to lawmakers not asking for it — an unacceptable answer for a lack of proactive investment in electorate expansion.

However, fault lies far beyond the top leadership of the state party. Beyond making tepid statements in favor, lawmakers also failed to stump for this rare opportunity to reshape the state constitution in a more pro-voter direction. Democratic politicians who were happy to vocally choose sides in the Buffalo mayor’s race stayed relatively mum on the ballot measures. 

The mistakes started earlier: Democrats in Albany bundled improvements to registration and absentee voting rules with proposal 1, a polarizing step to reform redistricting conjoined with several other changes. That measure would have shifted the Legislature’s threshold for passing its own maps from a supermajority to a simple majority — helping the in-party control the process.

This threat activated Republicans and Conservatives wholeheartedly against the package, with state GOP Chair Nick Langworthy leading a “Just Say No” campaign that included stops around the state and Conservatives making an investment of $3 million to oppose the measures. No on 1, 3, and 4 signs sprang up statewide, complemented by a barrage of incendiary ads.

In addition to galvanizing the opposition, this bundling muddied the clarity of support for the clearly pro-voter proposals 3 and 4. Advocacy groups like the League of Women Voters and Common Cause took opposing stances on proposal 1; their consensus on 3 and 4 was overshadowed by the fully united interests supporting the status quo.

This faceplanting is par for the course for democracy in New York. In June, the New York Board of Elections mismanaged the ranked-choice voting process; worse, progressive leaders who should have been standing up for its benefits of increased participation and representativeness instead cast doubt on it.

Last year, upstate administrators badly bungled vote-counting in the razor-thin Congressional rematch between Claudia Tenney and Anthony Brindisi for the 22nd House district, while the city botched distribution of absentee ballots.

By now it’s redundant to point out that New York’s Board of Elections system is patronage-addled and inefficient. Worse, though, is the lack of legislative energy behind reform — and the absence of clarion argumentation in favor of improvement from party leaders far beyond Jay Jacobs.

There are some bright spots. State Senator Zellnor Myrie has spearheaded a set of hearings about how to improve the state’s election administration and Senator Liz Krueger is carrying a bill to professionalize the Board of Elections. Since the ouster of the “IDC” in 2018, a unified Democratic state legislature — riding a wave of insurgent energy — began playing catch-up on voting laws, introducing early voting, provisions for voters to cure minor errors on their absentee ballots, and automatic voting registration (coming in 2023). But these minor steps forward and green shoots of reform only throw into relief how much more New York could accomplish with more pro-voter energy in the upper echelons of state power.

It’s time for a real democracy movement in New York. The Governor, leaders in the Senate and Assembly, the Democratic Party statewide — yes, ideally under a new chair — and advocacy groups must pull together and strategize about how to finally make our elections live up to our declared ideals of inclusivity and progress. 

Judging by administrative mismanagement, the failure of these ballot proposals, and our persistently low voter turnout, our needs far outpace the solutions that have been proposed so far. In addition to overhauling the Board of Elections system and rerunning these failed constitutional changes, we should add another that moves all elections to higher turnout even-numbered years.

We cannot let the failures of this fall, last June, and last November be repeated. Nationally, democracy is under threat and voting access is under siege

Here at home, every election that is mismanaged — with voters deprived of greater options for when to register and how to vote — gives New Yorkers another reason to distrust the democratic process. The stakes are far too high to let that happen any longer.

Ryder Kessler, a member of Manhattan’s Community Board 2, served as the Maine Democratic Party’s 2020 Voter Protection Director for Joe Biden and down-ballot Democrats. On Twitter @ryderkessler.

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