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Wanted: 21st Century Elections

All eyes are on New York’s primary debacle, but this was not the first time voters in the Empire State have had a hard time.

  • Jonathan Brater
April 21, 2016

Cross posted with the New York Daily News.

Tuesday’s election was a mess. Inexplicably, more than 100,000 voters had been purged from the rolls in Brooklyn in the five months prior. Independents were outraged they couldn’t vote in party primaries. Confusion and irregularities reigned at the polls.

New York values may be a proxy for progressivism in our national politics — but on elections, we’re shockingly out of date.

Right now, all eyes are on the primary debacle, but this week was not the first time New York voters have had a hard time. It’s long past time we widened our lens — and fixed our terribly arcane voting system, where voter disenfranchisement is too common.

Automatic voter registration and other upgrades are the biggest piece of the answer, and something both Trump and Bernie backers can agree on.

It’s a pretty simple idea. Instead of having to fill out a paper form to register, eligible citizens can be added automatically and securely. We already provide the required information at the Department of Motor Vehicles and other agencies. These offices can use it to put us on the rolls. The same goes for address updates and switching party affiliation.

Of course, if you want to opt out, you can. For everyone else, the process is streamlined and convenient. Once you’re on the rolls, you remain on.

This solves one of the biggest obstacles to voting: getting on and staying on the list. The issues we saw Tuesday illustrate problems that happen all the time. There is no need to purge voters if you have properly updated their records.

Out-of-date rules require most people to fill out forms on paper, 25 days before each election. It is no surprise New York is near the bottom in registration and turnout.

Meanwhile, states like Oregon add voters to the rolls whenever they get a driver’s license, well before the deadline. This also keeps the rolls up to date and secure — much better than haphazard voter purges like we saw in Brooklyn.

New York should also modernize voting more broadly, for current voters.

This means expanding online registration so that it reaches far more people. Right now, only those with a driver’s license can register online, leaving many city voters out.

It means making it easier to change and make updates to your registration, including fixing mistakes when you’re left off the rolls on Election Day, like we saw on Tuesday.

And it means adding early voting. Most states allow some form of early voting, but New Yorkers must all vote on one day — which happens to be a workday. When lawmakers slashed early voting in places like North Carolina, it led to widespread protests. It’s a shame we barely even offer it here.

Although these reforms would help all voters in all elections, there are also problems specific to primaries in the Empire State.

It is an outrage that, even though new voters can register 25 days before the election and sign up with a party, already-registered voters would have had to change their party affiliation way back in October of last year to participate in Tuesday’s primary. That makes no sense, and it needs to change.

New York should move the party affiliation up to the general registration deadline. Better still, we should allow voters to register — and affiliate — closer to the election.

Together, these changes would prevent this week’s problems from recurring.

Consider what would have happened if voters could register automatically and update their party affiliation closer to the election. Instead of having to affirmatively register, many more New Yorkers would be added to the rolls throughout the year. Rather than filling out a paper form in October, an independent registered voter could have switched to the Democratic or Republican party when she got her driver’s license in January or visited a Medicaid office in March.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both endorsed automatic voter registration — and its absence hurt their supporters and voters of all stripes Tuesday.

In New York, we have also had initial calls for change. State Sen. Michael Gianaris and Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh have introduced the Voter Empowerment Act, which would automatically register eligible New Yorkers, and other bills would also modernize our system. Gov. Cuomo called for automatic registration and early voting in January. And earlier this month, city Controller Scott Stringer released a report calling for these and other reforms.

While we sort through the failures in the recent election, we need to think about fixing the voting system for the future. “New York, New York” talks a big game about being the center of the universe, but our voting system is something out of the Stone Age. Start spreading the news.