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New York Needs Automatic Voter Registration Now

There’s one election policy that would propel New York to the front of the pack: automatic voter registration, or AVR. This policy could transform voting in New York State, and we need to get it right.

By Sean Morales-Doyle and Amy Torres

Cross-posted from the New York Daily News.

After years of lagging behind most of the country, New York’s lawmakers made key advances in voting this year, enacting early voting, online voter registration and other reforms that dozens of other states have. Now, New York must lead the nation in making it easy for eligible citizens to vote. On May 30, the Senate Elections Committee will hold a hearing on one election policy that would propel New York to the front of the pack: automatic voter registration, or AVR. This policy could transform voting in New York State, and we need to get it right.

AVR knocks down the barriers for many would-be voters: getting registered and keeping that registration current. New York already allows eligible citizens to register at the DMV and other state agencies like the Department of Health, and AVR would enhance those processes. It would make registration and updating registrations paperless — a no-brainer. It would also switch from an “opt-in” system to an “opt-out.” Any person doing business at a state agency who is eligible to vote would be registered unless they affirmatively decline.

The results of these subtle improvements can be dramatic. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have automatic voter registration. A recent Brennan Center study found growth in registration rates between 9% and 94% in those states. The Chinese-American Planning Council, the nation’s largest social services nonprofit for Asian American and Pacific Islanders, advocates for AVR because it can significantly amplify the voices of low-income, immigrant New Yorkers, many of whom receive little if any attention from political campaigns. AVR should be an easy decision for our legislators.

AVR isn’t one size fits all, though. Albany has to ensure we make registration the default for those who are eligible, while protecting people who aren’t — like non-citizens — from getting registered by accident. The concern isn’t non-citizen voting, a circumstance so rare that it’s virtually nonexistent. Rather, it’s that non-citizens who are accidentally registered through a poorly designed automatic system could be subject to deportation from the United States, even if they have legal status otherwise.

In New York, many of our public services and programs are easily accessed or renewed without requiring excessive forms of ID. Green card holders are eligible for many of these services, but they aren’t eligible to vote. That’s why making people opt out by mail several weeks after the fact should be avoided. Delaying opt-outs for inadvertently registered New Yorkers increases the risk that some New Yorkers could be permanently barred from naturalizing, or worse, be subject to removal. The opportunity to opt out should happen at the point-of-service at the state office. This is the only way to be sure people understand what the eligibility requirements are, understand that they are being registered, and make an informed decision about whether to opt out of the voter registration process.

New York has more than 2 million non-citizens. How many of them live in multi-family housing, where they may not be the primary user of their mailbox? How many won’t understand or read the mailer? How many will return it late? We want to register more people to vote — but we must not do so by risking others’ deportation.

Some argue no one should say a word about voter registration at the DMV, and the state should mail an opt-out form after the fact. But this approach hasn’t proven any more effective than opting out at the point of service, particularly in New York with our large immigrant population.

In a state with the 42nd-lowest turnout rate in the country during the 2018 election, Albany must fight to make sure that everyone who wants to participate in our democracy can. The changes we’ve seen this year will help. But if the Legislature does it right, automatic voter registration might finally help New York move to the head of the pack by adopting truly cutting-edge, well-designed democracy reform.

Morales-Doyle is counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Torres is director of policy and advocacy at the Chinese-American Planning Council.