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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)