Gotham Gazette

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The Legislature Takes on Election Reform

The new Democratic hold on the State Legislature has made headlines for many things these past few months other than an increase in legislative activity or at least the appearance of one. Last year, good government advocates speculated that if Democrats won the State Senate and broke the decades long party split between the two houses, it would either be a new day in Albany or a test of the party's true commitment to reform.

While the Democrats have yet to receive a glowing review on the way they have handled some state matters, there is some indication that election reform is receiving increased attention. Even though the issue is widely seen as off radar during this economic crisis, there are currently over 50 bills in the Senate to amend election law. The Assembly has over 170 bills. A number of these measures -- some of them small -- could improve elections for New Yorkers.

Changes Big and Small

While it still seems unlikely that New York voters will be able to vote the weekend before an election, register and vote on the same day, or even sign up for an absentee ballot online anytime soon, some election legislation has jumpstarted the discussion. There are at least five different bills in the Senate and Assembly on early voting alone, and more on the implementation of Election Day registration, universal registration (where the government is responsible for keeping a list of eligible voters) and rules to amend the special election process.

Voting advocates have been pushing for changes like these for years. They argue that by making voting more convenient and by increasing opportunity and access to the polls, New York can increase its dismal voter participation record, which remains one of the lowest in the nation. Other states, such as Wisconsin and Minnesota who have programs like Election Day registration and early voting, are among those that boast some of the highest voter participation rates in the country. To remove some of the barriers to voting in New York's primary elections, a bill was introduced to shorten the lead time period for voters to change their party enrollment from the current requirement, which requires voters change party enrollment the previous year.

However, election reform is more than big changes, say voting advocates. It is also about the minor details that can make elections more transparent, accountable and secure. Recently, the Senate passed legislation that would count absentee ballots which were filled out in the correct poll site but at the wrong poll table. A long-held practice in many places, it is rooted in a court decision from 2005 (Panio v. Sunderland) that states being in the "right church, wrong pew" should not disqualify a citizen's ballot. The bill's sponsors also hope this measure would ensure that voters who receive an incorrect affidavit ballot, perhaps due to pollworker error, would still be able to cast a valid vote. It is now in the Assembly election law committee.

This proposed legislation seems to cover every aspect of elections. The bills target a wide range of problems, attempting to address long-standing issues with the state's administration of elections and even party politics.

One bill, for example, aims to require primaries for any special election to fill a vacancy in the State Legislature. Currently party leaders convene to select the official party backed candidate in a special election.

To address problems that have plagued poll site location, one bill would require all poll sites be handicap accessible according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Another bill attempts to establish that no school serve as a polling place. In contrast, several voting advocates have argued that schools should be closed on Election Day so they can be used without compromising students' safety. And yes, there is legislation for that too.

Making Bills Law

Many have suggested that the good government platform -- including some election issues -- could make some real progress now that Democrats control both the Assembly and Senate. Other advocates, though, are quick to caution that the Democrats' true priorities will take shape as they settle into their fragile and newfound leadership role, and that pushing good government issues could still be an uphill battle.

Once bills pass through the appropriate committees in each house, they have to be voted on by the Assembly and Senate. It is widely speculated that the Assembly approved a number of reform bills in previous years knowing their passage in the State Senate would never come. With one-party control, both houses are likely to reevaluate their agendas, and issues that once sailed through the Assembly could encounter more opposition there. In addition, bills that pass the Election Committee in the Senate could meet a different fate on the Senate floor, especially since Democrats hold such a delicate majority.

A State Senate announcement this month that it would begin hearings across the state on election reform, though, gave advocates some cause for optimism. Sen. Joseph Addabbo, in the prepared statement, said, "We will address election issues with a deliberate approach, with hearings on voter registration, absentee ballots, election day and voting issues, Board of Elections oversight, new voting machines and other related matters."

Voting advocates hope these hearings will offer an opportunity to move the ball forward on many of the issues they have been pushing for. Aimee Allaud, elections specialist for the state League of Women Voters, said the hearings will "bring new opportunities for voters to speak to these issues which affect us every time we vote. New York needs to make additional progress in assisting all eligible voters to exercise the franchise."

Andrea Senteno is Program Associate for Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette.

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