Voters at the polls (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
After the stunning defeat of two voting-related state constitutional amendments on the ballot last fall, Democrats vowed to reinitiate the multi-year process this legislative session in Albany. But no state lawmaker appears to have introduced legislation this year to amend the New York constitution to allow for same-day voter registration and universal absentee voting, raising the possibility that they may not act at all.
Barring a special session later this year, the Legislature now has just three weeks to introduce and pass the amendments in order to possibly get them to a ballot referendum before 2025, according to one reading of the state constitution.
The amendments – to allow people to register and vote on the same day and to make universal absentee voting permanent – were thought to be a fait accompli last year, but were defeated after a concerted Republican campaign with little reciprocity from Democrats in the low-turnout off-year election. Election reformers who have been advocating for these reforms for years were hoping to see them back on the ballot in 2024, which will include a high-turnout presidential election where there is typically a larger proportion of Democratic voters, who more often favor making voting easier. But the chances for that are dwindling.
The last day of session this year is scheduled for June 2. Both the State Assembly and Senate are controlled by Democratic supermajorities, and Governor Kathy Hochul is a Democrat.
Constitutional amendments in New York must be passed by consecutive two-year sessions of the Legislature and then be approved by voters in a referendum. Because 2022 is the last year of a two-year cycle, the amendments could get on the ballot as early as the 2023 general election if they are passed this year and again next year (the first year of the next two-year session). But if they fail to pass this year, lawmakers will have to pass them next year or the year after, and again in either 2025 or 2026, before they can go before voters.
"We are still discussing these reforms," wrote Mike Murphy, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat, in an email when asked if there were plans to introduce and pass the amendments in the next three weeks.
Hochul backed the reforms in the State of the State agenda she released in January: "the Governor will urge the Legislature to begin the Constitutional amendment process for no-excuse absentee voting and same-day registration."
It's unclear to what extent the administration followed through on that commitment. Asked about this priority, a spokesperson referred Gotham Gazette to a general statement on voting legislation: "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."
A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not respond to requests for comment.
Another reading of the constitution suggests the amendments could move to their second passage next year even if they aren't reintroduced and passed this year. That's because the amendments technically already passed in this two-year session last year, before they failed in the 2021 ballot referendum. The law says little about whether the failed referendum resets the cycle. "The constitution is a little murky on that honestly," said Jarret Berg, an election lawyer and voting rights advocate.
If lawmakers are pursuing this latter approach, little has been said publicly about it. "It seems like they don't have a strategy for what to do with this," Berg said.
It could be the second time Democrats drop the ball on these marquee voting amendments, having failed to drum up support for the referenda last fall during a low-turnout election. State Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs later admitted the party had underestimated Republicans' negative messaging and made no effort to pass what were widely believed to be slam dunks.
Last fall, Assembly Member Robert Carroll, a Brooklyn Democrat and his chamber’s lead sponsor of same-day registration, and Senator Leroy Comrie, a Queens Democrat and his chamber’s lead sponsor of no-excuse absentee voting, both said they would reintroduce the legislation this year. "I don't anticipate having any problems with reintroducing it and getting it passed," Comrie told Gotham Gazette in December.
Spokespeople for Comrie and Senator Michael Gianaris, another Queens Democrat and the Senate deputy majority leader who sponsors same-day registration in that chamber, did not return requests for comment.
Dan Campanelli, a spokesperson for Carroll, said his office submitted a request to introduce the bill to the speaker's office earlier this year. "We're still going to try to pass it, we're waiting on a [bill] number," he told Gotham Gazette.
Since the amendments have already passed both chambers at least twice, they could easily be reintroduced and passed by the end of June session, including in a potential “big ugly” end-of-session package that often comes together at the 11th hour.
In the absence of a constitutional amendment, lawmakers are looking to lower the voter registration deadline to the 10-day constitutional minimum from the current 25 days before an election. Hochul backed the measure in her State of the State policy agenda. This past week, a bill to do so advanced out of the Assembly elections committee, having already passed the full Senate in January.
In January, lawmakers extended the temporary provision that authorizes universal absentee voting during the pandemic emergency through the end of this year. Another bill, also passed and signed into law in January, allows universal absentee voting in school district elections in 2022.
The state budget adopted last month also included $4 million for pre-paid postage on absentee ballots and ballot applications. Voting rights advocates have equated absentee ballot postage to a poll tax. This is the first time the state has allocated funding to postage since the June 2020 primaries.