Why is New York Falling Behind on Modernized Elections?

New York is a national leader on a number of issues. Why, then, are our elections still stuck in the 20th century?

May 6, 2014
Voters waiting in line

New York is a national leader on a number of issues — same-sex marriage, minimum wage, fashion. Why, then, are our elections still stuck in the 20th century?

New York’s voter registration record is dismal — we rank 47th in the country. The primary culprit is our antiquated registration system. Yesterday, the New York State Senate Elections Committee had a chance to change that. Instead, they voted down the Voter Empowerment Act of New York (VEA), which would have modernized our election system and streamlined registration for voters. Legislative leaders must reconsider and pass this bill before the session ends in June.

The VEA would finally bring the state’s election processes into the digital age.  The bill would, among other things:

  1. Implement online voter registration for all eligible citizens instead of just those with an ID from the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
  2. Empower the DMV to electronically register and transfer such registration records to local election officials instead of utilizing outdated paper forms.
  3. Allow 16- and 17 year olds to pre-register to vote. 

This bill would substantially improve New York’s arcane voter registration processes, which is why lead sponsor, State Senator Michael Gianaris, forced the committee to consider it.

But instead of rolling out the red carpet for reform, six members of the committee promptly slammed the door shut. The real question is: Why would they be against reform that would result in cost savings, greater efficiency in election administration, and increased voter registration?

Today, we conduct almost all of our transactions online. Already, voters in 23 states are able to (or will soon be able to) register online. New York is one of them:  Two years ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo took a step forward by allowing New Yorkers with a DMV ID to register to vote, or update their address or party enrollment, through the DMV’s secure online voter registration website.  But the legislature can go even further to modernize the state’s elections. If passed, the VEA would expand online registration beyond those with DMV-issued identification to allow voters to access and update their own voter registration records online.

New York also deserves some credit for partially implementing electronic registration at DMVs. Practically speaking, this means that when a voter is transacting business in person at their local DMV, the voter’s personal information is entered into the computerized system via a provided keypad. If they consent to registration, their information is sent to election officials electronically. Registrants provide their signature on a piece of paper that is then scanned by DMV staff to create a digitized signature.

The VEA would modernize the DMV’s process for voter registration by making the process completely electronic. This would eliminate the current costly, inefficient, and paper intensive voter registration process. New Yorkers are yet again behind the status quo in this regard, as 26 states have already instituted electronic voter registration at their DMVs. 

Finally, the bill would permit 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote. It is wise to capture these young adults in the registration system during their first interaction with the DMV and seize the opportunity to activate their sense of civic responsibility.

Implementing online voter registration and electronic registration at DMVs would not only be a victory for New York’s voters. Based on evidence from other states, it would also substantially cut costs, increase registration rates, and ensure voter rolls are accurate and up to date. Bringing more young people into the process would also help boost participation.

In rejecting the VEA, the Senate Elections Committee doubled-down on the state’s existing dysfunctional election processes. If courage is what is missing to make these changes a reality, New York need not look far for inspiration. States across the country, from Nebraska to Hawaii, are prioritizing election reform and passing new measures to make it easier to register.  

There is still time for New York’s elected leaders to act since the legislature is in session until the end of June. Let’s hope they will follow the current trend in favor of election modernization to ensure New York’s elections are free, fair, and accessible to all eligible citizens.

(Photo: Thinkstock)