As President Trump Compromises Access to the Ballot Box, N.Y. Must Widen Participation

March 15, 2017

Cross-posted from the New York Daily News.

New York has one of the worst voter turnout rates in the country. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature can finally change that this year with a new package of laws designed to boost registration and participation.

New York's own President Donald Trump wants to move in the opposite direction. He has claimed, without evidence, that millions voted illegally last November. This baseless charge is already fueling proposals to restrict voting rights in a number of states.

In the Empire State, voting has been so difficult for so long that it is, to borrow a word, sad. A system of "antiquated election laws" and "artificial barriers," as Cuomo said in his January State of the State, "prevent and discourage voters from exercising this sacred right."

With the April budget deadline looming, the governor and the legislature can do something about it. The Assembly is rallying behind proposals for automatic voter registration and early voting — reforms that would make it much easier to sign up to vote and to actually cast a ballot.

Cuomo announced similar plans in his latest budget proposal, as he has in the past. Previously they died during his negotiations with the legislature. With voting rights across the country drawing fresh fire, it's time for Albany leaders to finally deliver the modern, effective election system that New York desperately needs.

Consider just how bad it is in our state. As many as 40 percent of adult citizens in New York were not registered to vote as of the most recent census count in 2014, putting us in the bottom-third of U.S. states. Fewer than 29 percent of adult citizens cast a ballot in the 2014 midterms, placing us ahead of only Texas, Utah, and Indiana in voter turnout.

Part of this has to do with the failure of New York to catch up with the rest of the country. Early voting has already taken hold in 34 states, with the Republican governor of Massachusetts this year calling it a "big success" in getting people out to vote. Progressive states like California, Oregon, and Connecticut, plus the District of Columbia, are already ahead of us in passing automatic voter registration. Results so far in Oregon, which last year became the first state to put the policy into action, show significant increases in the numbers and turnout rates of new voters.

These two reforms could make a big difference for New York. Early voting would allow people to cast a ballot beginning days before Election Day, easing the kinds of two-hour waits New Yorkers endured last November and which, research shows, discourage voters from showing up for the next election.

Beginning early also gives officials the chance to deal with errors before it's too late. Last year, for example, officials confirmed only after Election Day that a huge administrative mistake had wrongly purged more than 100,000 Brooklynites from the rolls, with many told at the polls that they were ineligible to vote. And, with enough availability and public education, early voting has the power to boost turnout.

Moving from our byzantine, paper-based registration system to an automatic, electronic one would benefit election officials and voters alike. Today, New Yorkers need to go out of their way to register and update their registrations as they move. A modern approach would automatically enroll eligible citizens as they interacted with government agencies (people would have the choice to opt out). This would increase the accuracy of voter records and efficiency of administrative upkeep, and help ensure eligible New Yorkers remained on the rolls without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops.

During last year's Democratic Convention, Cuomo declared New York to be "the progressive bellwether for the nation." Ticking off a list of major reforms, from legalizing same-sex marriage to a higher minimum wage, he added, "And not that New York talks about it. New York did it. And that's the big difference."

Millions of New Yorkers — and Americans watching across the country — need him to add voting modernization to that list. He's shown he has the power to get big things done. This year's political climate demands nothing short of supercharging our democracy.

(Photo: Thinkstock)