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Times Union: Burden Falls to NY Legislature to Address Voting Issues

Times Union

April 21, 2016

Burden Falls to NY Legislature to Address Voting Issues

Even Amid High Primary Turnout, Problems Affect Voters

By Matthew Hamilton

There are two ways to look at the 2.65 million-voter turnout for Tuesday's presidential primaries in New York.

An optimist might see one-third of enrolled voters from each party showed up at the polls — roughly the same as 2008 level — as a solid showing in a state with poor turnout in some years. A pessimist might see that two-third of enrolled Republicans and Democrats stayed home.

But while inferences are easier to make based on actual data, what's more difficult to discern is what happened for numerous voters who were turned away or forced to file affidavit ballots because they weren't enrolled in a party or at least weren't enrolled in time for the primary they wanted to vote in. The state attorney general announced late Wednesday afternoon that his office had received more than 1,000 primary-related complaints from voters, far and away more than what it received in years past.

As New York surveyed the damage on Wednesday, there came calls for state lawmakers to change the state's "archaic voter registration system" to address potential further disenfranchisement in the democratic process for some citizens.

"Once again, New York's archaic voter registration system has highlighted dramatic shortcomings in the administration of elections across the state," the New York Public Interest Research Group said in a statement, calling for automatic voter registration and same-day voter registration.

Such pleas aren't new, but they have been slow to be addressed or are the source of partisan bickering at the state Capitol, where of 84 pieces of legislation (some of them duplicates in the Assembly and state Senate) currently before state lawmakers include the word "voting" (333, again with some duplicates, include the word "election"). Of those numerous bills, a select few are targeted at the type of issues voters faced Tuesday.

Among the same-day registration proposals is a provision sponsored by Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, D-Manhattan, that would allow potential voters to register not only on the day of a general election but also on the day of a primary. In New York's closed primary system, only those affiliated with a party (think of it like an exclusive club with many members) can vote in that party's primary.

"Prior registration is an unnecessary obstacle that should be removed," Kavanagh said.

Kavanagh also has proposals to address the long lead time required for voters who are enrolled as a member of one party but want to change their party affiliation to vote in a different primary. The deadline to switch was in October of last year, long before the primary season began and serious voter interest in this state was sparked. In legal terms, that deadline was 25 days before the general election prior to the next primary a voter wishes to vote in.

One bill would move that date up to 25 days before an election. Another would move the date up to 90 days before a primary.


Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his State of the State address proposed automatic voter registration. Under Cuomo's plan, unless a person explicitly opted out, information used on any state Department of Motor Vehicles application would automatically be sent to the county board of elections to register an applicant or update their registration.

Addressing the Brooklyn situation seems to be a different bear. About 125,000 Democratic voters were taken off the rolls there, creating headaches when some showed up. That prompted New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer to pledge to perform an audit of the city Board of Elections to determine what went wrong. State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman later said his office has opened an investigation into "allege improprieties" in Tuesday voting by the city Board of Elections.

In a call with The New York Times that was livestreamed online Tuesday night, Stringer said it was likely thousands of voters were disenfranchised by the purge-related problems, and he laid some blame for electoral issues at the feet of state lawmakers.

"This is a sense of disorganization during these primaries (in) which conceivably maybe the next president of the United States was picked," Stringer said in an interview with WCNY's "The Capitol Pressroom" on Wednesday. "I think we want to give people every belief that these elections are fair and transparent and that everybody has an opportunity to vote and participate."

Often in Albany, a debacle leads to new legislation.

Whether there will be an appetite for election-related legislation in the seven weeks of session that remain when lawmakers return May 3 is another thing entirely. The Assembly and Senate have taken up separate pieces of legislation that would consolidate the federal and state primaries. The Assembly also passed legislation allowing 17-year-olds to vote in the presidential primary if they will turn 18 by the general election.

But consider that a version of Kavanagh's same-day registration legislation has been introduced each session since 2006, when current state Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, was carrying the flag.

Chairmen of the Assembly Election Law and Senate Election committees could not be reached for interviews by late Wednesday afternoon, though Kavanagh remained optimistic about what can be accomplished in seven weeks.

"That's plenty of time," he said.

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