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Gianaris, Kavanagh, Brennan Center Introduce Voter Empowerment Act of New York

The Brennan Center, Senator Michael Gianaris, and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh joined with good government and advocacy groups today to announce the introduction of the Voter Empowerment Act of New York, a nonpartisan initiative to increase voter participation as the 2012 election season commences. This legislation would amend the election law to update, streamline and make more efficient the voter registration process in New York.

June 7, 2012

Contact: Desiree Reiner, 646–292–8321

New York, NY – The Bren­nan Center, Senator Michael Gianaris, and Assembly­mem­ber Brian Kavanagh joined with good govern­ment and advocacy groups today to announce the intro­duc­tion of the Voter Empower­ment Act of New York, a nonpar­tisan initi­at­ive to increase voter parti­cip­a­tion as the 2012 elec­tion season commences. This legis­la­tion would amend the elec­tion law to update, stream­line and make more effi­cient the voter regis­tra­tion process in New York.

Currently, the single biggest barrier to voting is our anti­quated regis­tra­tion system. The proposed bill would improve New York’s voter parti­cip­a­tion by auto­mat­ic­ally regis­ter­ing citizens to vote with their consent and updat­ing their regis­tra­tion inform­a­tion when they inter­act with specific govern­ment agen­cies. It would also compu­ter­ize the entire regis­tra­tion process, redu­cing typo­graph­ical and cler­ical errors that come with hand-writ­ten regis­tra­tion docu­ments and making it easier for eligible voters to register. In addi­tion, it would allow 16– and 17– year-olds to pre-register in advance of their 18th birth­day, thus incentiv­iz­ing more voters to go to the polls on Elec­tion Day. In 2010, only 36 percent of New York’s citizen voting-age popu­la­tion cast ballots, making the state’s voter regis­tra­tion rate the third worst among states in the coun­try. In an elec­tion year, it is crucial for New York­ers to be reminded of the import­ance of voter regis­tra­tion and voting whenever possible.

Updat­ing New York’s regis­tra­tion system will remove unne­ces­sary burdens on New York­ers, ease elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion burdens for the state and county boards of elec­tions, improve the accur­acy of the voter rolls, and ulti­mately increase the number of eligible voters who are registered in the state. The legis­la­tion would reduce the number of duplic­ate or outdated regis­tra­tion records and ensure that fewer eligible voters are left off the voter rolls.

“As elec­tion season approaches, govern­ment bureau­cracy contin­ues to impede too many people from voting,” Senator Gianaris said. “Our proposal would remove these obstacles and maxim­ize voter turnout while saving the state and its counties hundreds of thou­sands of dollars per elec­tion, thus prevent­ing disen­fran­chise­ment and enabling better record keep­ing.”

“When voters try to register, or change their address, or change their party, they often find that the rules prevent them from making the change in a timely way or, worse, that the change does­n’t take and they are excluded from voting,” said Assembly­mem­ber Kavanagh, who chairs the Assembly subcom­mit­tee with juris­dic­tion over elec­tion oper­a­tions. “By modern­iz­ing the way we collect, process, and store voter inform­a­tion, we can make regis­tra­tion virtu­ally univer­sal among New York­ers who are eligible to vote.”

“We applaud Senator Gianaris and Assembly­mem­ber Kavanagh for taking this much needed step to bring New York’s  outdated and error-prone voter regis­tra­tion system into 21st century,” said Wendy Weiser, Director of the Demo­cracy Program at the Bren­nan Center for Justice. “Through this effort, New York will lead the coun­try in having a voter regis­tra­tion system that is accur­ate, complete, and works for all voters.”

The Voter Empower­ment Act of New York would do the follow­ing:

  • Auto­mat­ic­ally register eligible consent­ing citizens at desig­nated govern­ment agen­cies;
  • Permit pre-regis­tra­tion of 16– and 17– year-olds;
  • Auto­mat­ic­ally trans­fer regis­tra­tions of New York­ers who move within the state;
  • Provide access to voter regis­tra­tion records and regis­tra­tion of eligible citizens online and;
  • Allow people to register or change their party later in the elec­tion cycle.

The provi­sion amend­ing voters’ abil­ity to enroll in a party or change their party affil­i­ation is partic­u­larly impact­ful. Currently, when a registered voter seeks to change his or her party enroll­ment, enroll in a party for the first time, or termin­ate his or her party enroll­ment that change does not go into effect until the first Tues­day follow­ing a general elec­tion. As a result, voters wish­ing to make such enroll­ment changes may have to wait more than a year for the changes to be imple­men­ted. Under the proposed legis­la­tion, changes to party enroll­ment would take effect ten days after the date on which the changes were applied, coin­cid­ing with the dead­lines for voter regis­tra­tion and simpli­fy­ing the process for both voters and the Board of Elec­tions.

The Voter Empower­ment Act of New York was modeled after the Voter Empower­ment Act intro­duced in the United States House of Repres­ent­at­ives. Parts of these meas­ures have been imple­men­ted success­fully in multiple states across the coun­try, includ­ing Arizona, Delaware, Geor­gia, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Wash­ing­ton. When signed into law, the Voter Empower­ment Act of New York would be the most compre­hens­ive state plan imple­men­ted to modern­ize the voter regis­tra­tion system.

The signi­fic­ance of the Voter Empower­ment Act of New York is compoun­ded by the state’s multiple elec­tion days, which can be confus­ing and lead to low voter turnout. Voters should be aware that, gener­ally, they have the oppor­tun­ity to vote in at least two elec­tions per elec­tion year – a primary and a general. Due to this state’s overly complex elec­tion system, however, New York this year has four elec­tion days: 

  • Tues­day, April 24th was the Pres­id­en­tial primary;
  • Tues­day, June 26th is the congres­sional primary;
  • Tues­day, Septem­ber 13th is the legis­lat­ive primary and;
  • Tues­day, Novem­ber 6th is the general elec­tion.

The follow­ing organ­iz­a­tions offered support for modern­iz­ing the voter regis­tra­tion system:

Heather Smith, Pres­id­ent of Rock the Vote, said,  “Rock the Vote is thrilled to see legis­la­tion that would upgrade our voter regis­tra­tion system and encour­age greater parti­cip­a­tion. In partic­u­lar, the bill’s provi­sions permit­ting the preregis­tra­tion of 16 and 17-year olds will facil­it­ate oppor­tun­it­ies to register new voters both during high school civic programs and the first time they inter­act with the DMV to get a driver’s license. We applaud this effort to make the voter regis­tra­tion process more access­ible to the young people of New York State.”

Sally Robin­son, Pres­id­ent of the League of Women Voters of New York State, said, “Since the 1920’s, the League of Women Voters of New York State has been work­ing in Albany on behalf of the rights of voters. From the start a major focus of our efforts has been to make it easier to register to vote, thereby extend­ing the fran­chise to more New York­ers.  We support the passage of the Voter Empower­ment Act because it repres­ents a major step forward in this direc­tion. New York State can, and should, be a model for accur­acy, effi­ciency, and confid­ence in our regis­tra­tion system.  More registered voters leads to more voters at the polls on Elec­tion Day.”

Arthur Eisen­berg, New York Civil Liber­ties Union Legal Director, said,  “It has long been recog­nized that cumber­some voter regis­tra­tion laws burden the consti­tu­tional right to vote and reduce voter turnout. This legis­lat­ive effort prop­erly seeks to reform our regis­tra­tion laws and broaden elect­oral parti­cip­a­tion in ways that will enhance our demo­cratic system.”

Susan Lerner, Exec­ut­ive Director of Common Cause/NY said, “We welcome this effort to upgrade New York State’s elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion with the adop­tion of these long over­due modern­iz­a­tion efforts.  Elim­in­at­ing unne­ces­sary and complic­ated regis­tra­tion require­ments rein­forces the import­ance of voting. We cannot have a vigor­ous demo­cracy when citizens feel there are obstacles to voting which are offi­cially created.”

Bill Samuels, Founder of the New Roosevelt Initi­at­ive, said, “To continue to rebuild trust and respect in our polit­ical system, we should make it easier not harder for citizens to vote. This legis­la­tion stream­lines the current outdated process and helps allow more people to exer­cise their right to vote and their voices to be heard.”

Steven Carbó, State Advocacy Director for Demos, said, “A modern­ized voter regis­tra­tion process in New York would have the poten­tial to bring millions of eligible, unre­gistered persons into the demo­cratic process. All New York­ers have the right to an elec­tion system that facil­it­ates voter parti­cip­a­tion.  With the intro­duc­tion of the Voter Empower­ment Act of New York, Demos looks forward to a new conver­sa­tion on advan­cing the free­dom to vote in the 21st century.”

Diana Fryda, Voter Empower­ment Organ­izer of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said, "New York’s paper and post­age voter regis­tra­tion system is a relic of the 20th century and in sore need of modern­iz­a­tion. Creat­ing an auto­mated regis­tra­tion process for consent­ing, eligible citizens would be a win-win, result­ing in better elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion and higher voter parti­cip­a­tion. NYPIRG urges its imple­ment­a­tion.”

Queens resid­ent Brian Pear­son, a formerly-incar­cer­ated New Yorker and leader of VOCAL-NY, said, “This bill will ensure that every New Yorker has a full and fair oppor­tun­ity to get on the voter rolls. Expand­ing auto­ma­tion to public service agen­cies ensures that govern­ment uses the inform­a­tion already at its finger­tips to get all eligible voters registered, and will dramat­ic­ally increase voter regis­tra­tion and parti­cip­a­tion rates.”

Chung-Wha Honh, Exec­ut­ive Director of the New York Immig­ra­tion Coali­tion, said, “The New York Immig­ra­tion Coali­tion has brought together diverse immig­rant community groups to register, educate, and mobil­ize new citizen voters over the years, and have increased turnout and civic engage­ment among immig­rant communit­ies. Unfor­tu­nately, there are still too many barri­ers that make voter regis­tra­tion inac­cess­ible, and that’s why we’re a hundred percent in support of the Voter Empower­ment Act of New York.”

Dominic Mauro, Open Govern­ment Coordin­ator of Rein­vent Albany, said, “The Voter Empower­ment Act propels New York’s anti­quated and often dysfunc­tional voting process into the 21st Century.  It uses Inform­a­tion Tech­no­logy to empower the citizen and provide better govern­ment services at lower costs. Voting is non-partisan, so is govern­ment effi­ciency. The Voting Empower­ment Act deserves the support of the entire Senate and Assembly, and the Governor.”