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Union Sun & Journal Reports on Efforts to Reform NY Laws to Make Elections More Voter-Friendly

Union Sun & Journal

Plans to Boost Voter Turnout Fizzle in Albany

POLITICS: Lack of Voter Reforms Blamed for Apathy

October 27, 2016

By Joe Mahoney, CNHI News Service

ALBANY — New York voters have anemic attendance at the ballot box, and advocates for measures designed to boost turnout say squabbling lawmakers are partly to blame.

New York ranked 44th in voter turnout in the general election four years ago, according to Nonprofit Vote, which encourages voter participation.

That year, as President Barack Obama won a second term in the White House, fewer than 54 percent of New York's voters cast ballots — far below the 76 percent who voted in Minnesota, the highest level in the nation.

Entrenched lawmakers show little interest in reforms that would invite more voters to get involved, said Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, an offshoot of a reform group created by consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

"You're asking people who win by the rules of the game to change the rules of the game — and that's always tough," Horner said.

Among proposals that have been floated but failed to gain traction in Albany are early voting and same-day registration.

The only way to vote early in New York is to request an absentee ballot ahead of time and attest to a disability or being out of town.

More than 30 other states allow "no-excuse" absentee voting.

Another proposal would automatically enroll voters at age 18, using information from motor vehicle records and other public databases. Five states now automatically register voters —California, Connecticut, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia.

The author of a bill to bring it to New York, state Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, said those being enrolled would get a notice advising them they can vote in future elections.
The measure has been impeded by Senate Republicans who control Albany's upper chamber, he said.

"In short, the Republicans have an interest in having as few people as possible voting," said Gianaris, whose party enjoys a significant enrollment advantage over the GOP in blue New York.

"They are constantly putting obstacles in the path of making it easier to vote," he said.
Gianaris estimated that automatic registration would expand New York's pool of eligible voters by more than 2 million people. The total number of New Yorkers now registered as voters now stands at 11.7 million.

Staffers for several lawmakers said they were not available to be interviewed about voter participation including Sen. Robert Ortt, R-Niagara County.

Scott Reif, a spokesman for the Senate Republican conference, noted concerns that same-day registration and automatic voting would invite errors or fraud.

Reif said objections to early voting arise from concerns that communities will be saddled with the cost of staffing polling places leading up to the traditional Election Day.

"Generally, we want as many people to participate in their democracy as possible," he said.
Reif blamed Democratic lawmakers for complicating balloting in New York this year, noting that they balked at holding a consolidated state and federal primary. That set the stage for the presidential primary in April, the congressional primary in June, and voters called back to the polls yet again for the state primary in September.

In an age of instant communication, advocates for changing the voting rules say there's no reason to require voters be registered at least 25 days before the next election.

"The fact that our election system sends a message that we don't want you to vote makes it difficult to increase turnout," said Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, D-Manhattan.

The Assembly has passed a measure to allow early voting three times, he said, only to see it sputter in the Senate.

As a general rule, voter turnout in New York is lowest among younger and less educated voters, said Gerald Benjamin, a longtime observer of state politics and director of the Benjamin Center for Public Policy Initiatives at State University campus at New Paltz.

Benjamin said he favors automatic registration so that the burden is on government to ensure people are eligible to vote, but he noted other factors suppress turnout.
Non-competitive races, stemming from legislative districts rigged to favor incumbents, flatten interest, as well.

"When you have more competition, the election tends to count for more," he said.
John Conklin, spokesman for the state Board of Elections, noted that competitive presidential elections in New York have been rare. Democrats have coasted here since 1984, when President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, won a second term.

Conklin noted it's up to lawmakers to change voter registration laws, and automatic registration would require amending the state Constitution, which means two straight sessions of the Legislature would have to pass identical bills before it would go to voters on the ballot.

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