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It’s Time for Automatic Voter Registration in New York

Legislators in Albany have an important opportunity to strengthen democracy in the Empire State.

May 29, 2019

In a year marked by victories for expanding democracy in New York, the Legislature is on the cusp of passing another critical reform. This week lawmakers will hold a hearing on automatic voter registration (AVR), a common-sense policy innovation to help more New Yorkers gain access to the ballot.

Implementing AVR would only require a simple change to the way the state currently registers voters. It streamlines the voter registration process by making it “opt-out” instead of “opt-in,” meaning eligible citizens who interact with government agencies are registered to vote or have their existing registration information updated, unless they affirmatively decline. It’s that simple because the New York Department of Motor Vehicles already has a system in place that electronically transfers voter registration information to elections officials, one of the two components of AVR. By adding an “opt-out” to the electronic transfer, the Legislature can transform voter registration in the Empire State.

Data from states that have already adopted AVR shows that the policy causes increases in voter registrations: a recent Brennan Center report, AVR Impact on State Voter Registration, found that AVR increased registration rates between 9 and 94 percent in jurisdictions across the country. Given that an estimated 1.1 million New Yorkers are eligible to vote but are not registered, that’s the kind of reform that New York needs.

AVR has other benefits as well. It makes the voter rolls more accurate by creating a constant stream of updates between registration agencies and election officials.

Enacting AVR would build on the sweeping democracy reforms that were enacted earlier this year, including early voting, pre-registration for 16– and 17-year-olds, and portability of registration records. The Legislature will need to adopt a form of AVR that best serves the needs of New Yorkers. That means:

  • Making AVR available at government agencies that New Yorkers are most likely to visit. For example, residents of New York City are less likely to visit the DMV than upstate residents. Providing AVR at other agencies would help more people register to vote, regardless of where they live.
  • Providing a clear opportunity to opt out. Because not everyone in this big, diverse, state is eligible to vote, individuals who should not register must have an easy and clear way to opt out.  New York AVR should provide individuals with the chance to opt out during their visit to the AVR agency, as opposed to sending them a notice in the mail some period after they leave the agency like a small handful of states do.
  • Ensuring that vulnerable populations are protected from being registered inadvertently. As one of the most diverse states in the country, New York should have an AVR program that protects people if they are registered by mistake. This may be non-citizens who are ineligible, and domestic violence survivors who should be able to register to vote without making their information public. New York already has an address confidentiality program for this purpose, so AVR will need to work with the existing program.
  • Accounting for New York’s party affiliation rules. In New York’s system of closed primary elections, only members of a party can vote in the primaries, meaning that New Yorkers who are not members of a party can only vote during general elections. In order to enable every voter to participate in both primaries and general elections, we need to design AVR so that as many people as possible affiliate with a party. That means AVR policy should provide an opportunity join a party during their visit to the AVR agencies, instead of depending on someone to return a postcard.

The Legislature should seize the opportunity to discuss AVR policy when it holds a hearing on AVR on May 30 in Albany. New York has already enacted a number of reforms, but to truly become a leader in making democracy fairer and more accessible, the Legislature must pass automatic voter registration.

Click here to read more about automatic voter registration.

(Image: Spencer Platt/Staff)