New York consistently has some of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country, but several Queens senators are trying to change that with a package of bills that would make it easier for residents to access the ballot box.
State Senator Michael Gianaris and other state Senate Democrats held a press conference on Jan. 23 to announce their efforts to streamline the registration process, make it easier to vote early and allow the pre-registration of teenagers, among other initiatives.
In total, 13 bills aimed at improving voter turnout were announced on Jan. 23. Gianaris, who introduced the Voter Empowerment Act in 2012, called on the state Senate to pass the legislation.
The bill would allow automatic voter registration at sites like state and city colleges and public housing; permit the pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds; make it easier to transfer the registrations of people who move to the state; make online voter registration possible; and move the deadlines for voter registration and party enrollment.
In 2010, he introduced an amendment to the New York State Constitution that would remove the requirement for New Yorkers to register to vote at least 10 days in advance of election day. Both pieces of legislation did not pass the senate.
“At a time in our country when voting rights are under assault from all corners, New York must live up to its reputation as a progressive leader,” Gianaris said. “Access to the ballot box should be easy and fair. I urge my colleagues to enact these proposals as soon as possible to remove obstacles to voting.”
President Donald Trump established a voter fraud commission shortly after his inauguration and claimed that 3 million illegal immigrants voted in the 2016 election. He shut down the commission earlier this month after several organizations filed lawsuits. Several state attorneys general, including New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, refused to provide members of the commission with voter registration information.
Senate Democrats also released a report to outline how the state’s voting laws depress voter turnout, making it lag behind many states across the country.
According to the report, New York is only one of 13 states that has not implemented early voting. A 2015 report by the Center for American Progress Action Fund found that New York ranked 44th in terms of ballot accessibility, just above South Carolina and Mississippi.
In 2016, New York’s voter turnout ranked 44th, with 57.3 percent of eligible voters turning out. The states with the highest voter turnout — Minnesota, Maine, New Hampshire, Colorado, Wisconsin and Iowa — also have same-day voter registration.
Though 13.8 million New Yorkers were eligible to vote during the 2016 Presidential Election, only 9.14 million were registered to vote, the report noted.
During the 2017 mayoral elections, only 22.3 percent of registered voters in Queens cast their ballots. Approximately 270,348 votes were cast in Queens though 1,211,303 borough residents are registered to vote.
In New York, an absentee ballot can only be cast due to sickness, disability, infirmity or being out of town on Election Day. But in 37 states around the country, an excuse is not required. A bill was introduced by Queens Senator Leroy Comrie to add an amendment to the constitution that would remove a requirement for residents to declare a specific reason to vote by mail.
“Voting should be an equal right of all, not a costly inconvenience for working families,” Comrie said. “It is past time that New York joins the majority of states that allow no-excuse absentee voting.”
New York does rank first in one aspect of voting — changing party registration is more difficult than any other state in the nation, according to the report. To vote in the 2016 Democratic or Republican closed primaries on April 19, independent or unaffiliated voters had to change their party affiliation by Oct. 9, 2015, 193 days prior to elections.
A bill introduced by state Senator Liz Krueger would allow a voter who has changed their party enrollment from one party to another at least ninety days prior to a primary election.
Schneiderman’s office received more than 1,500 complaints about ballot access during the primaries, according to the report, about the way the Board of Elections handled the primaries. The complaints ranged from BOE members not allowing residents to cast affidavit ballots, inadequate notice about polling sites and BOE volunteers not allowing resident to cast their ballots between 6 a.m. and noon on primary day.
The national Election Protection hotline received more than 900 calls from New Yorkers during the primary, more than calls received from Texas and Georgia, two states with more restrictive voting laws.
“Expanding and protecting voters rights here in New York is paramount in making the process easier and more accessible for a larger number of voters,” said state Senator Joseph Addabbo. “Having the second lowest voter participation in the nation does not reflect well on our state. Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy, and if we want to continue to have a strong democracy, we need to find measures to allow more individuals to get to the ballot box.”