Voters at the poll-site (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
A sweeping voter protection bill, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York (NYVRA), moved for the first time this week since it was introduced in the State Legislature in 2020.
On Wednesday, the legislation cleared the Senate elections committee and is expected to be heard next in the Senate finance committee – a sign that it may make it to the floor of the State Senate, where it would be virtually assured to pass. But the bill still faces an uphill battle in the Assembly, where supporters are less hopeful. Both chambers are led by Democratic supermajorities.
The NYVRA is intended to fill gaps in the federal Voting Rights Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court has largely dismantled over the last decade. The bill would give the New York Attorney General "preclearance" authority over any proposed changes to voting in parts of the state with a history of disenfranchisement (the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan had previously been covered under the federal VRA). That authority could apply to anything from the placement of poll-sites to the provision of interpreters.
The legislation would also make it easier to file lawsuits against the state or counties for violating the voting rights of protected racial, ethnic, or linguistic groups. And it contains provisions to discourage voter intimidation, require language access, and track potential rights violations.
While Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul championed a version of a New York Voting Rights Act in her State of the State agenda in January, she did not push for it to be passed and funded in the new state budget despite its sizable potential costs. Hochul has not taken a position on the current NYVRA legislation, which is the only proposal of its kind being discussed in Albany.
"Governor Hochul has taken bold action to expand voting rights and is committed to making sure New York State will continue to be a national leader on voting rights protections," said Avi Small, a spokesperson for Hochul. "Governor Hochul will review this legislation if it passes both houses of the legislature."
Hochul’s State of the State policy agenda said the governor "will advance legislation establishing a state-level voting rights act that will enhance protections against voter suppression and vote dilution, establish new protections against voter intimidation and deception, improve language access for voters, and require boards of elections in jurisdictions with a history of civil rights violations to obtain pre-clearance for changes to election-related policies and practices."
But Hochul has not introduced any such legislation, a spokesperson confirmed. The governor has taken other action on voting reform, including enacting laws to create online absentee ballot application and tracking systems, expand the number of early voting poll sites, and expedite the counting of absentee ballots. The state budget also included a provision to require poll sites on college campuses, something Hochul championed in her State of the State agenda.
The NYVRA is co-sponsored by more than half the Senate and 61 members of the 150-seat Assembly.
A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, did not respond to a request for comment about the status of the bill or whether he supports it.
"The Senate has and will continue to prioritize improving our elections and protecting voting rights," said Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat and the Senate elections chair and the bill's sponsor, in a statement to Gotham Gazette on Wednesday.
"Our hearings last summer and the landmark report we issued last fall have resulted in many pieces of legislation moving forward in the Senate, including today's committee vote on the VRA," Myrie said.
Whether it will move in the Assembly, which has lagged behind the Senate on voting legislation and other reform issues in recent years, is anybody's guess. The Assembly elections committee met Tuesday to pass legislation that would shorten the voter registration deadline and make it harder to discard affidavit ballots, but the NYVRA was not taken up.
"This is a monumental first step for a landmark piece of legislation," said Perry Grossman, a voting rights attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) of the Senate election committee’s passage of the bill. "We need more engagement from the Assembly side to get this over the finish line."
Myrie was optimistic the bill would pass both chambers. "I am confident my Senate colleagues and the Assembly will respond to the voices of New Yorkers across the state who are crying out for a stronger democracy," he said. Myrie and others heightened efforts to pass the bill at the beginning of this session after legislation to restore parts of the federal VRA failed in the U.S. Senate.
"It would be perplexing [that] a bill with so many Assembly sponsors - over 60 at last count - would not advance in that chamber," said a Senate source who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
"We know the bill has an engaged sponsor on the Assembly side and we'd like her colleagues to share that enthusiasm," said Grossman.
Assembly Member Latrice Walker, a Brooklyn Democrat, the bill's sponsor, and the chair of the Assembly's elections committee, declined to comment through a spokesperson.
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette