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Analysis

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.