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Mass New York Voter Enfranchisement Awaits a Stroke of the Governor’s Pen


stu voter reg

Voters would have less hassle registering under AVR (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Following the widespread problems in the execution of this year’s elections, it’s clear we need to transform New York’s voting systems from top to bottom. From restoring confidence in the Board of Elections to reducing long lines and wait times counting ballots, lawmakers must take action now to prevent another disaster the next time New Yorkers vote. Thankfully, there is one important fix that can be done immediately: enacting the Automatic Voter Registration legislation that passed the Legislature and is currently awaiting Governor Cuomo’s signature.

There’s no question that 2020 has been an extraordinary year for democracy – and the COVID-19 pandemic presented serious challenges for election administration across the country and here in New York. And while there were record shattering levels of enthusiasm among voters this year, our state continues to fall short. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report, New York ranks 45th in the nation for registered voters as a percentage of the population. Indeed, there are up to 1 million New Yorkers who are eligible to vote, but remain unregistered.

The best way to ensure that we never have to let the burdens of the registration process lead to low turnout and other complications at the polls is to enact Automatic Voter Registration.

Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) is a simple, secure, and straightforward tool that will immediately increase New York’s abysmal registration rates. Through AVR, eligible voters become automatically registered when they engage with government agencies like the Department of Labor, Department of Motor Vehicles, or a Medicaid enrollment office, provided they do not opt out. The AVR system would then securely transmit the voter’s registration information from those agencies to the State Board of Elections. Had this policy been in effect in 2020, eligible unenrolled New Yorkers filing for jobless claims with the Department of Labor could have been added to the voter rolls automatically. 

New York’s democracy problems pre-date the coronavirus. In 2018, New York ranked 42nd in the nation in voter turnout, and experts believe that this one simple reform is a key to reversing our shockingly low level of electoral engagement. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have passed AVR, including New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Vermont just across our borders. Many of these states tore down obstacles to voter participation with bipartisan legislative majorities or through ballot measures that decisively won with broad support from the public.

The lessons from Oregon are particularly instructive. Since it became the first state in the country to implement Automatic Voter Registration, Oregon’s voter registration rates quadrupled at DMV locations across the state. Indeed, over 90% of eligible voters are now registered. Not only are these newly-registered individuals on the voter rolls, they are actually voting as well. A report found that 44% of these previously unregistered individuals voted in the elections following AVR implementation. And in 2018, Oregon far exceeded the national turnout average with one of the highest rates in the country. 

Unquestionably, last year was a banner year for voting reforms in New York State. With full Democratic control of the Legislature in Albany, it was the first time in memory that laws were passed to make voting more accessible to New Yorkers. The bottlenecked backlog of reforms that included early voting, pre-registration of 16 and 17-year-olds, consolidation of primary dates, and flexibility to change party affiliation helped transform New York away from its status as a state with some of the most arcane and restrictive voting policies.

However, despite this progress, there is still unfinished business as the election made abundantly clear. And AVR is at the top of that list.

We have an opportunity to modernize our state’s broken election system with one of the most popular and common-sense reforms available, one that will enhance registration in particular for underrepresented populations that are too often missed. We simply can’t afford to wait any longer, it’s time for Governor Cuomo to sign Automatic Voter Registration into law now.

*** 
State Senator Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) and Assemblymember Latrice Walker (D-Brooklyn) are the lead sponsors of the Automatic Voter Registration bill. On Twitter @SenGianaris and @TheRealLatriceW.

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