(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
Come January, Democrats will control both houses of the New York state Legislature and the governor’s office, and they have declared that after years of being stymied by state Senate Republicans, voting reform will be at the top of the 2019 agenda. But even before that new governing reality comes to fruition, Assembly Democrats, already in the majority by a wide margin, examined both voting administration and the broader laws at play during a hearing on Thursday in Manhattan.
Though with looming new political dynamics as a backdrop, the Assembly Election Law Committee and Election Day & Voter Disenfranchisement Subcommittee held what is a typical post-election hearing to discuss how to improve voting in New York, where for years the state has had some of the most regressive laws in the nation. The legislators present and those testifying focused specifically on early voting and no-excuse absentee voting as key reforms on the table, but often deviated towards criticism of the state’s entire election structure, with accompanying calls for comprehensive reform.
New York is one of only a small number of states that does not have early voting or no-excuse absentee voting, and has the strictest party registration deadline in the country. There appears to be unanimity among Democrats about moving ahead with early voting. And while research on whether it improves turnout is mixed, it would likely foster a more diverse group of voters, who would not have to take off work to vote, and would allow election administrators to diagnose and correct problems, such as the two-page ballots that led to problems at the polls in New York City last week, at an early stage in the process.
“People working multiple jobs, people in the gig economy or with unsteady work, are often forced to choose between selecting their representatives in government and making a living,” said Ethan Geringer-Sameth, of government reform group Citizens Union, in testimony to the committee. “For many New Yorkers, early voting and no-excuse absentee ballots would provide the first real opportunities to vote.”
New York’s voting laws once again came to the forefront on Election Day, when issues at the polls led to long lines and numerous people leaving before voting. The fiasco renewed calls for reforms, particularly early voting, which some argue could have made a significant impact, as well as better election administration through professionalizing the city Board of Elections.
“Early voting would have also mitigated the impact of broken scanners and its cascading effect of long lines, overcrowded poll sites, and compromised ballot security and privacy,” said Alex Camarda of Reinvent Albany, another good government group. “By holding voting on days other than Election Day, voters are distributed across many days and volume is reduced on Election Day. The Board can troubleshoot problems in advance before Election Day.”
The Assembly has on numerous occasions passed voting reforms such as one week of early voting, and Governor Andrew Cuomo included a two-week early voting period in his budget proposal last year, but efforts have annually been stopped by the Republican-controlled State Senate.
With control of the Senate turning over to Democrats based on last week’s election results, early voting appears poised to become reality in the state. Committee Chair Charles Lavine said, given the new dynamics of state government, the Legislature has a “unique opportunity to enact meaningful reforms,” including early voting and no-excuse absentee voting.
Two commissioners and two executive directors of the State Board of Elections testified on Thursday, and all adopted a reformist tone, though the Board is not known as particularly progressive with regard to pushing changes to make voting easier in New York.
Robert Brehm, one of two executive directors, said that New York’s unusually high turnout this year put a strain on the voting system, and that early voting would mitigate the stresses of high turnout and other factors such as inclement weather and a complex ballot.
“Where many other states were using some series of days leading up to election, to allow early voting, we all had to accomplish it in one day,” Brahm said. “Certainly, we could’ve provided a better customer service process if we were able to stretch it out over a period of time.”
Brehm and the commissioners noted several elements of early voting and absentee voting that need to be addressed for them to work, including making sure that voting rooms are adequately staffed and have enough equipment, and that the use of snail mail for absentee votes doesn’t prevent votes from being counted, as it has in the past. On the mail front, Brehm endorsed a bill in the Assembly that would allow voters to apply for absentee ballots online.
Andrew Spano, one commissioner, signaled support for early voting while also casting aspersions on the entire system writ large.
“Our system is basically a de facto voter suppression system, because we have all these hurdles that we have to get through,” said Spano, who served as Westchester county executive for 12 years. “There’s no motivation for the voter in some of these elections to come out. Midterm elections, village elections, school elections. They’re all decided by a fraction of the voter population.”
The commissioners noted that early voting was not a “panacea” solution to the problems afflicting New York elections, but that as part of a package, it could help improve the situation. Other proposals included electronic poll books and the abolition of election districts, to be replaced by poll sites as an administrative unit with books organized alphabetically instead of geographically. They also signaled support for automatic voter registration, despite possible issues with implementation regarding individuals who relocate.
The hearing was also an opportunity for Assembly members to unload on Michael Ryan, the embattled executive director of the New York City Board of Elections who has shouldered much of the blame for the administrative failures on this past election day and others.
Assemblymember Robert Carroll of Brooklyn told of his experience on Election Day. At his polling place, 350 people were stuck in line for several hours after each machine at the site broke, he said. After Carroll contacted the board, a tech was sent to fix the problem, but the machines continually broke throughout the day, leading to scores of people leaving poll sites without voting.
“I am very hopeful that New York State and New York City have early voting, have electronic poll books, voting on demand,” Carroll said. “But why should we, as elected officials, think that the New York City Board of Elections will be able to administer any election, and especially an updated election process in the future after such a terrible track record in the last year?”
Ryan argued that the issues this year were a result of both unusually high turnout (though it was still under 40 percent in the city) and other aggravating factors, including inclement weather, and a perforated two-page ballot that led to jams when voters didn’t submit them correctly. He noted education efforts were designed on short notice and inadequate, and endorsed ideas for improving the process such as having workers from municipal agencies act as poll workers or better storage for emergency ballot procedures, as well as early voting.
Carroll was not convinced.
“Yeah I get it: there’s a lot of people in New York City. Guess what? That’s always been true,” Carroll said. “We need to actually make sure that we can run an election. So how are we gonna change that?”
[Read: Voter Turnout Booms in New York]
[Read: 3 Big Reasons Elections in New York City are So Poorly Run]
by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette