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Would Simplify Ballots And Promote Participation

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo expanded last week recent proposals to reduce public corruption and strengthen the state’s democracy by unveiling a series of new proposals and reforms to increase voter participation and make it easier for new candidates with fresh ideas to run for elected office in New York State.

The proposed reforms include simplifying the ballot, allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote, expanding access to the ballot for candidates, and allowing greater flexibility for affidavit ballots to be counted.

The announcement builds on the reforms proposed this session. In his State of the State presentation, the governor announced his strong support for early voting and other reforms to our election system. Several weeks ago, the governor proposed giving prosecutors better tools to prosecute and tougher criminal penalties for those who commit crimes of government corruption.

The governor then proposed several new reforms to better enforce violations of the Election Law and to prevent individuals from buying their way to the ballot.

“For too many years, New York State has lagged behind other states and been in the Dark Ages when it comes to our process for electing candidates to public office,” Cuomo said last Tuesday, Apr. 30. “Over the past days, we have taken major steps to restore the public’s trust in government and reform our outdated election system to give New York voters a louder and clearer voice in selecting their representatives. Today we are building on our recent efforts by announcing common sense reforms to our electoral process that will increase voter registration and turnout and strengthen our state’s democracy so the people of New York will be better able to participate in our state’s government.”

Pre-registration to vote

New York currently ranks 47th in the nation in voter registration, with less than 64 percent of eligible residents registered to vote, and voter registration among young people is much lower than for other age groups.

Under the governor’s proposal, 16- and 17-year-olds would be allowed to “pre-register” to vote at school and at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Upon turning 18, those who are pre-registered will have their information verified, and will be automatically registered to vote.

Several states, including California and Maryland, have pre-registration, and this common sense proposal will allow young people to engage in the electoral process earlier and develop routine voting habits. It will also allow voter registration to occur at driving schools and high schools where such prospective voters spend their time.

Improving ballot access, quality

Current state law has what were described by the Governor’s office as “burdensome requirements” for the number of signatures a candidate is required to collect-known as “petitioning”- to appear on the ballot. These requirements often benefit incumbents, because incumbents have the operation and resources to collect signatures as well as sophisticated knowledge of the rules.

The governor’s proposal would reduce by the number of signatures required to appear on the ballot for all state offices to make those requirements match the proportional requirements for Congressional offices. For example, current state law requires that for any state senate race, a candidate must collect signatures from five percent of enrolled voters in a given party in that senate district or 1,000 signatures, whichever is lower. In practice, this means that candidates must gather a minimum of 1,000 signatures-and many more than that to withstand court challenges from other candidates.

Under the proposal, that number would be reduced to no more than 550 signatures. Similar reductions would be made for other state offices. Reducing this requirement will reduce the barriers to entry for public office, and give New York voters greater choices on Election Day.

The governor also proposes removing the requirement that a signatory to a petition outside New York City must include his or her town or city with the signature. Under the Governor’s proposal all signers would need to only include their county of residence in addition to their street address. This is currently the requirement inside New York City, which would be extended statewide.

Ballot simplification

New York State’s ballots were described by the Governor’s Office as “overly complicated and hard to understand,” leading to voter confusion and contributing to long lines on Election Day.

The proposal, which employs best practices in ballot design, would make sure the ballots used in elections are simple and easy to understand. If enacted, the state board of election would be required to disseminate a standardized template to counties before a statewide election. The ballot would, among other changes:

– display candidates’ names in clear, readable text using initial capitalization, which is more readable than the current “all caps” approach;

– have reduced clutter near candidates’ names (including removal of various symbols required by statute), increasing legibility for voters and decreasing the likelihood of scanner error; and

– position fill-in ovals directly next to candidates’ names on the left, dramatically reducing ambiguity and confusion.

The new ballot would also be required to contain much clearer, shorter instructions for voters. In addition, in counties where ballots are required to be in languages besides English, ballots would only be allowed to have two languages, and poll workers must be trained to ensure that each voter receives a ballot in the appropriate language.

This reform would allow the font size to be much larger on these ballots, making it easier for elderly and other voters to vote and reducing wait times and long lines on Election Day.

Modernizing affidavit ballots

Under current state law, if a voter goes to a polling site and their name does not appear on the voter list, under certain circumstances, that voter may vote by affidavit ballot. For that affidavit ballot to be counted, however, a voter must be in the correct election district.

Under the proposal, a voter who casts an affidavit ballot on election day shall have their votes counted for the offices for which they are eligible to vote if they vote in the right county, even if not in the right election district.

This proposal aims to ensure that more New Yorkers have their votes counted and that a greater number of people participate in the electoral process. At the same time, this reform would ensure that no voters are allowed to vote for offices for which they are not eligible to vote.

More time to register to vote

In 2012, New York ranked 44th in the nation in voter turnout, with only 53.6 percent of the voting eligible population turning out to the polls during the presidential election. One reason for this record of voter participation is the extensive set of barriers New York State law contains to such participation.

For example, current law closes the voter registration lists 25 days before primary and general elections. As a result, an unregistered voter who becomes interested in an election as long as 24 days before an election is unable to participate.

Under the Governor’s proposal, the voter registration lists would be closed only 10 days before Election Day rather than 25 days, allowing a greater window of opportunity for voters to register to vote.

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