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New York Needs to Upgrade Its Voting System

Early voting and automatic voter registration would improve the state’s voting process, the Brennan Center’s Natalie Tennant, a former West Virginia secretary of state, told New York lawmakers

November 15, 2018

New York desperately needs a 21st-century election system. This was highlighted, again, during last Tuesday’s midterm elections, as widespread reports surfaced throughout the day complaining of early long lines and broken voting machines all across New York. Even before the election, New York voters faced an outdated registration system.

On Thursday, the Brennan Center’s Natalie Tennant testified before a New York State Assembly subcommittee focused on Election Day operations and voter disenfranchisement. Before joining the Brennan Center, Tennant served as West Virginia’s Secretary of State from 2009 to 2017. Under her leadership, West Virginia became the third state in the country to pass automatic voter registration (AVR).

In her testimony on Thursday, Tennant shared what she learned from her work on making West Virginia a leader in election modernization. She also outlined two policy solutions, early voting and automatic voter registration, that would significantly improve the voting process in New York.

Early voting would help shorten voting lines in New York

New York is one of only 13 states where early voting was still unavailable for this election. Surveys continue to show that early voting is extremely popular with voters, since it makes the voting process more convenient and accessible for voters, especially for those who face logistical challenges on Election Day, such as work schedules, commutes, or bad weather. This was reinforced by the surge in early voting numbers in last week’s midterm elections. 

Early voting would also help New York shorten lines on Election Day and reduce the overall stress on its voting system, which serves about 12.7 million registered voters. An extended voting period would also allow poll workers to gain experience before Election Day and become more efficient in their work. The extended period would create time to discover and fix registration errors and technical glitches before Election Day.

Automatic voter registration would help prevent improper voter purges

In addition to long lines, New York voters also face the risk of being turned away from the polls, thanks to the state’s outdated voter registration system. In last week’s election, there was a large number of complaints from voters who knew they had registered to vote but were not showing up on the voter rolls. Inaccurate registration rolls are a recurring problem in New York. For example, in the 2016 election, more than 200,000 names were improperly deleted from the voter rolls in New York City due to a misguided purge.

Automatic voter registration is a simple, secure, accurate, and affordable solution to New York’s voter registration woes. In states with AVR, eligible voters are automatically signed up to vote through a digitized system when they interact with a government agency, unless they choose to opt out. New York should join the growing momentum for AVR.  Just last week, Nevada and Michigan approved ballot measures to adopt AVR. There are now 15 states, along with Washington, DC, that will have AVR ready in time for the 2020 election. 

It’s time for New York to take action

As stories from last week’s election showed us, New York needs to fix its voting system, which has been called one of the worst in the United States. Thankfully, there are proven solutions – such as early voting and automatic voter registration – that will help the state improve. With all the momentum for democracy reform across the country, New York’s lawmakers should take action now – or risk getting left in the dust.



Tennant’s testimony to the New York Assembly is below:

Good morning Assembly members. I am Natalie Tennant with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and the former Secretary of State of West Virginia.

Thank you for having this hearing and for allowing me to testify about the benefits of early voting and other election modernization efforts.

First, I would like to tell you about the Brennan Center for Justice. We are a nonpartisan law and policy institute that seeks to improve our systems of democracy and justice. We work on a range of issues pertaining to voting rights and elections.

We do this through many avenues including legislative advocacy and education of the public through reports like Early Voting: What Works, and The Case for Automatic Registration.

We are thrilled by the possibility that New York may be able to achieve real election reform this session. There’s a lot to do, and I’d like to talk about a few of the reforms we think should be top priorities. 

I think it may be helpful for you to hear from someone that has real-world experience administering a statewide election. I am proud to say that West Virginia has been on the forefront in election modernization. We were among the first states to have early voting, online voter registration, and to pass automatic voter registration legislation.

Early voting was implemented in the Mountain State in 2002. At first it was only available at the county courthouses and voters would come to the county seat to vote.Seven years later, because early voting was so popular, we expanded it to community areas around the counties at the discretion of the county clerk and county commission. 

From the beginning, we have had early voting for at least 10 days, including two weekends. I want to emphasize the importance of providing an extended period with off-hours in order to maximize the impact of early voting.

The benefits of early voting are immense because it answers the demands of the voters’ lifestyles by offering convenience and flexibility. And in New York’s case, that’s convenience and flexibility for about 12.7 million registered voters.

I can tell you from personal experience that early voting reduces the stress on the voting process on Election Day. You are trying to cram 12.7 million voters into a 15-hour time period.  Early voting alleviates administrative burdens and causes less frustration while improving poll worker and staff performances because it allows election workers to gain valuable experience, which can make them more efficient at handling higher volume on Election Day.  

An extended voting period provides more opportunity to discover and correct problems before the polls close. Last week we had reports of scanners being broken in precincts. In one specific polling place, only a single scanner was working for about 1,500 people causing long lines. 

A longer voting period creates more time to recalibrate voting machines, re-check electronic systems like scanners, and fine tune poll site management, all which helps systematically eliminate the small glitches that can lead to major errors during the increased pressure of Election Day. 

Many of my colleagues and several of the people who spoke today participated in a nationwide program called Election Protection in which voters can call if they have problems voting or concerns when they vote. 

The top two complaints in New York were: first, the long lines, with many voters telling us they had to wait over two hours to cast a ballot; and second, folks who knew they had registered to vote but they were not showing up on the voter rolls. 

We already talked about how we can solve the first problem. The second one can be addressed by implementing automatic voter registration, a common-sense approach that uses an eligible citizen’s information to register them to vote when they interact with a government agency unless they decline.

There are two important things to keep in mind when putting automatic voter registration into place in New York: 1) it should not be limited to the DMV, as it is in some states; and 2) it should provide the opportunity for voters to opt out at the point of service.

There are 15 states and the District of Columbia that have approved AVR and just two weeks ago, New Jersey launched its system. 

If we had time, I would like to talk about other priorities, but I will just mention them for the record. They include codifying the right to vote for people on parole, consolidating the primaries, election day registration, changing registration and party affiliation deadlines and no excuse absentee voting. 

These are current modernization efforts and Americans deserve to use them whether they live in West Virginia or New York. I urge you to pull your election systems, and processes into the 21stCentury as West Virginia has done, and we will help you. My colleagues and I at the Brennan Center are ready to assist.

Thank you again for this opportunity and I will gladly answer any questions. 


(Image: Michael Reaves/Getty)