NEW YORK – Backed by the state’s leading good government groups and elected officials, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has introduced the New York Votes Act, a comprehensive reform package aimed at simplifying the voting process, boosting voter registration, and increasing voter turnout. The New York Votes Act will be sponsored by the Chairman of the Election Law Committee, Assemblyman Michael Cusick (D-63).
The New York Votes Act will dramatically update the state’s voting systems by adding early voting, automatic and same-day voter registration, consolidated primaries, shortened party registration deadlines and more.
“Any law that makes it easier to vote is a good law; any law that makes it harder to vote is a bad law,” said Schneiderman. “New York has long been a bastion of democracy, but our state’s current system of registration and voting is an affront to that legacy. The New York Votes Act will help our state become a national leader in protecting and expanding voting rights for New Yorkers.”
“I am pleased to be working with Attorney General Schneiderman on the New York Votes Act,” said Cusick. “This legislation, aimed to simplify the voting process and improve voter accessibility, will give citizens a better opportunity to participate in the democratic process by increasing voter participation across New York State.”
Many of the provisions in New York Votes Act arise directly from the findings of the Attorney General’s December 2016 report on the problems that voters faced during the 2016 presidential primary and general elections. The inquiry, which was undertaken in response to record voter complaints during the April primary election, found that voters encountered barriers to access erected by New York’s restrictive voting laws, rules and procedures, as well as by the practices and administrative errors of state agencies and the Boards of Election.
Key provisions of the bill include:
- Automatic Registration of Eligible Voters
- Any designated state or local agency that collects information from a person who has formal contact with that agency as part of an application for services, change of address or other similar process would be required to automatically electronically transmit identifying information for that person (e.g., name, address, date of birth, driver’s license number) to the New York State Board of Elections (“NYS BOE”). Upon receiving this information, NYS BOE would then electronically forward it to the appropriate local Board of Elections (“BOE”) for verification and processing as a voter registration application. Individuals would have the absolute right to opt out of the automatic registration process by simply checking an “opt out” box on the designated agency’s electronic or paper form.
- Same-Day Registration For New Voters
- Amend New York State Election Law to permit a qualified person who is not registered to vote in the state to appear personally at the appropriate polling place on the day of any primary, general or special election, register to vote, and simultaneously cast his or her ballot. Once the registration is processed and vetted by the BOE, the voter’s ballot would be counted, and the voter would be added to the voting rolls.
- Online Personal Voter Registration and Absentee Ballot Applications
- Allow electronic personal voter registration, and online applications for absentee ballots, so that any qualified registrant can complete the entire voter registration or absentee ballot application process online via a desktop computer or handheld device.
- Create a System of “Permanent” Voter Registration
- Implement a system of “permanent” voter registration in the state by requiring BOEs to maintain and update the registration of any consenting voter who moves within the state and submits a change of address to the BOE or to any designated state or local agency.
- Allow Registered Voters to Change Their Party Enrollment Closer to Primary Day
- Allow already-registered voters to change their party affiliation up to 120 days prior to any primary election.
- Adopt a System of Early Voting
- Permit a registered voter to vote at the local BOE in the same county where the voter is registered, or at one or more other designated polling places, seven days per week starting two weeks before an election.
- Provide for “No Excuse” Absentee Voting
- Repeal, in its entirety, the current requirement that absentee ballots can only be obtained and cast by otherwise qualified voters if they meet one of several statutorily-enumerated justifications for obtaining such ballots (e.g., unable to vote at the polls due to illness or physical disability). The bill also would allow online submission of applications for absentee ballots.
- Ensure Uniformity of Poll Site Hours Across the State
- Require poll sites statewide to open at 6:00 a.m. and close at 9:00 p.m. during all primary elections. Under existing law, except for NYC and seven other counties, polling places do not open until noon on primary days.
- Consolidate Federal, State and Local Primaries on Single Day
- Hold all statewide primary elections on one day in late June.
- Enact Disaster Preparedness Protections
- Clarify and facilitate decision-making by BOEs during an emergency as well as communication to voters and participants of a caucus when time is of the essence to protect voters’ safety and enable them to vote when the emergency event is over.
Enhance Access to the Ballot
- Increase Language Access
- Whenever any local BOE finds that 3% of the voting-age residents of an election district have Limited English Proficiency, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, it shall provide ballots as well as registration or voting notices, forms, instructions, assistance, and other materials or information relating to the electoral process in the primary language of the population in question, in a manner that provides the same opportunity for access and participation as voters whose primary language is English.
- Protect Voters from Improper Challenges
- Require a good faith basis and supporting documentation for persons, other than election officials, who challenge voter eligibility on Election Day, as well as penalties for those who abuse this provision of the law.
- Restore Voting Rights for Citizens on Parole
- Restore voting rights to persons on parole or post-release supervision following a felony conviction. Restoration would not be contingent upon payment of fees, fines, restitution, or other legal financial obligations
- Enhance Poll Worker Training and Recruitment
- Require election commissioners and BOE employees to complete mandatory trainingwithin six months of appointment, and continuing education annually, with the curriculum to be established by the NYS BOE; and require NYS BOE to establish and host an Education and Training Institute to develop a curriculum for certified poll worker training and train-the-trainer programs. Reimbursement to Localities
- Reimburse Localities For Extra Costs
- Require the state to reimburse localities for any additional costs associated with the implementation of early voting, enhanced language access and expanded primary election voting hours as required by the bill.
“New York State ranks abysmally low on voter turnout, and that is the direct result of generations of red tape, voter disenfranchisement and antiquated registration systems,” said Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-35). “The Senate Democrats unveiled a series of bills to help address this problem, and we thank Attorney General Schneiderman for his dedication on this issue. Our democracy requires active participation from all citizens and together with Attorney General Schneiderman, we will keep up the fight to achieve that goal.”
“Voting rights are the foundation upon which we build our democracy,” said Assemblyman David Buchwald (D-93), chairman of the Assembly Subcommittee on Election Day Operations and Voter Disenfranchisement. “I thank Attorney General Schneiderman for putting forward a bold set of election law reforms. I will gladly work with my colleagues in government to improve our voting system.”
“The League of Women Voters of New York State applauds Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for this comprehensive voting reform package,” said Barbara Bartoletti, Legislative Director for the League of Women Voters of New York State. “New York State continues to rank near the bottom in terms of statewide voter turnout – especially for primary elections. Laws that would allow for automatic voter registration, early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, and consolidation of primary elections will empower voters and give greater access to the ballot. We urge the Governor and Legislature to act on these reforms as soon as possible to ensure future elections do not face the same barriers as the 2016 primary and general elections.”
“New York ranks consistently as one of the nation’s worst in terms of voter participation, driven by state laws that create obstacles to voting,” said Megan Ahearn, program director at New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). “Much of the rest of the nation has developed practices that improve voter turnout. The Attorney General’s package relies on those best practices. NYPIRG applauds his sweeping response; one that modernizes state voting laws with an eye toward making participation easier, not harder.”
“With one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country, New York needs to modernize its outdated elections systems so that more eligible New Yorkers can register and vote. Automatic voter registration stands to add millions more voters to New York’s rolls, and implementing it at agencies beyond the DMV would make our state a nationwide leader. Adding early voting days, including on weekends, would make it significantly more convenient to vote—for some people, it could make all the difference in whether they are able to cast a ballot at all,” said Chisun Lee, Senior Counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The Brennan Center applauds the Attorney General for his leadership in calling on the State to bring its elections into the 21st century.”
Last month, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) intervened in a federal lawsuit against the New York City Board of Elections (“NYCBOE”), alleging that widespread policies and practices used by the NYCBOE to cancel voter registrations violate federal and state laws. Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that since 2014 the NYCBOE improperly purged over 200,000 voters’ registrations and, as a result, disenfranchised many voters during the 2016 Presidential Primary.
Since 2012, OAG has entered into agreements with eight counties aimed at ensuring that Spanish-speaking voters have equal access to the electoral process. The agreements specifically ensure that the local BOEs have Spanish-language voter registration forms, absentee ballot applications, affidavit applications, public notices, website information, polling place reassignment letters and the Election Day ballot itself. In addition, the Boards also agreed to recruit and identify sufficient numbers of Spanish-speaking poll workers and agreed to provide enhanced training for poll workers to ensure that quality language assistance is provided on Election Day.
OAG has also operated its Election Day Hotline since November 2012. The Hotline — reachable at 800-771-7755 — has fielded hundreds of complaints from voters across the state and worked with local election officials and others to promptly address issues encountered by voters at the polls.
The Attorney General’s Office has said it is committed to the voting rights protecting all eligible New Yorkers. To file a civil rights complaint, contact the Attorney General’s Office at (212) 416-8250,[email protected] or visit www.ag.ny.gov.